Founder & CEO, AppHarvest
A Kentucky native and University of Kentucky graduate, Jonathan Webb is turning his dream of a high-tech farming hub in Appalachia into reality with AppHarvest. The company is building some of the largest indoor farms in the world, combining conventional agricultural techniques with today’s technology to grow non-GMO, chemical-free produce to be sold to the top 25 U.S. grocers. The company’s first greenhouse will span 60 acres and open in 2020 in Morehead, Ky. The greenhouse will use 90% less water than a typical farm due to its sophisticated circular irrigation system that uses only rainwater collected in a 10-acre retention pond.
Why locate in Appalachia? Like many Kentuckians, Jonathan grew up knowing of the devastating job losses in the region. His grandmother was raised in Whitley County, where a coal mining accident killed his great-grandfather. Jonathan strives to work alongside the hard-working men and women of Eastern Kentucky and build an inclusive economy for the future. By locating within Appalachia, the company is also less than a day’s drive to more than two-thirds of the U.S. population. That lowers transportation costs by 80%, allowing AppHarvest's fresher produce to better compete against low-cost foreign imports.
Before founding AppHarvest, Jonathan worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on the largest solar project in the Southeastern United States. The project aimed to help achieve a White House goal of ensuring the military’s hundreds of installations develop resilient on-site power generation and receive 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. While living in Washington D.C. developing sustainable energy farms, Jonathan researched another type of farming — the Netherlands and its high-tech greenhouses that in a single acre yield as much as 30 outdoor acres and virtually eliminate the use of chemicals.
In February 2017, encouraged by investors, advisors including Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, and politicians of both parties, Jonathan left Washington and came home to Kentucky, where he now works tirelessly to make the eastern part of the state the AgTech capital of America.
The United Nations estimates the world will need at least 50% more food by 2050, but 70% of the world’s freshwater is already devoted to agriculture and utilizing more land will release carbon stored in the soil, compounding climate change. Jonathan discusses his Farming Now philosophy that the future of food already exists today by leveraging proven technology developed in the Netherlands, which is the world’s second-largest exporter of food despite being just one-third the size of Kentucky. The country’s approach yields 30 times as much food on the same amount of land as outdoor farming and does so with 90% less water and no chemical pesticides.
Nearly 80% of all U.S. venture capital money flows to California, New York and Massachusetts. Jonathan discusses how he attracted $125 million to the country’s third-poorest Congressional district all within just 18 months.
The coal industry, which long served as Appalachia’s dominant industry, has seen employment fall to its lowest levels since 1898. Throughout Appalachia, one in four residents live in poverty. Jonathan discusses why the region is primed to become America’s AgTech capital and how the industry will create a more resilient, inclusive economy.