AppHarvest’s Big Idea: Bringing Food Production Indoor At A Mammoth Kentucky Greenhouse

Jonathan Webb, the innovator and chief executive who is bringing food production indoors and wants to change the economy of eastern Kentucky. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MOREHEAD, Ky. – Almost 70 percent of American consumers, including those who love fresh tomatoes, are a day’s drive from eastern Kentucky. That proximity to big markets is the primary reason AppHarvest is building the largest greenhouse in the United States in a big field in Rowan County just outside this university town.

Sometime next summer, when production commences, the $97 million, 60-acre building will begin shipping 45 million pounds of fresh produce annually, primarily tomatoes, to grocery stores from Atlanta to New York, and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis.

“I asked the engineers, ‘How big can we possibly be to operate efficiently and effectively,’” said Jonathan Webb, AppHarvest’s 34-year-old founder and chief executive. The 2.76-million square foot building, now being constructed on a 366-acre field close to Interstate 64, is big enough to lower costs on materials, production, and distribution. “It’s price per pound. We have to compete with produce coming from 2,000 miles away.”

I learned about Kentucky’s AppHarvest project last spring and visited with Jonathan Webb and his colleagues in late June for this story in the New York Times. If Webb succeeds he and his staff will do more than produce enough vegetables to help feed the East Coast. He’ll change the economic vector of a state that has a $5 billion farm sector, but has been associated historically to horses and tobacco, and for that matter to the failing coal sector. In food there is salvation.

The mammoth project, undertaken by the two-year-old Kentucky start-up, weds Dutch greenhouse technology to rising demand for American-grown tomatoes, an appetite that has climbed to 20-plus pounds per person, second only to potatoes. With its digital monitoring, sun and LED-lit environment, recycled rainwater, and non-chemical growing practices, the immense greenhouse also responds to a host of cultural concerns about food safety, freshness, environmental quality and energy consumption.

Other food growers have the same idea. AppHarvest, which will employ 285 people, is part of a wave of new greenhouse construction changing vegetable production in the eastern U.S.  

More Greenhouse Development

Kentucky Fresh Harvest is building a 30-acre, $13.5 million greenhouse to grow cherry tomatoes near Stanford, also in Kentucky, about 100 miles southeast of Morehead. Mucci Farms, a Canadian company, just opened the first of three large greenhouses for tomato production on a 75-acre farm in Huron, Ohio. Mastronardi Produce last year finjshed a 20-acre greenhouse for vegetables in Wapakoneta, Ohio. The Canadian company operates six others in Ohio, Michigan and New York.

AppHarvest is intent on meeting the rising demand for fresh tomatoes in a market increasingly supplied by imports from Mexico and Canada.

The two countries account for more than half of the $3 billion American fresh tomato market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says U.S. production, meanwhile, is declining.  Fresh tomato growing in Florida, a major producer, has fallen to around 30,000 acres, down from 39,400 acres at the start of the century, according to the U.S.D.A. Similar reductions have occurred in California, North Carolina, and other tomato suppliers.

Forehead State University built and operates a robotics research and development center close to where AppHarvest is buildings its greenhouse. Proximity to a state university is one reason Webb chose the site for his project. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AppHarvest’s founder also is intent of leveraging his big greenhouse to promote two other transformative ideas. The first is to build huge AppHarvest greenhouses in other eastern Kentucky communities.  The second, he says, is to be so successful that other greenhouse growers settle in eastern Kentucky, enough to replace an economy devastated by the collapse of the coal industry with a “sustainable produce hub” that would turn Kentucky into “the agtech capitol” of America.

That goal is achievable. Greenhouses provide a controlled environment that allows vegetables to be grown year-round. The U.S.D.A., in a report published in March, said greenhouse tomatoes in 2017, the latest year for accurate figures, accounted for 32 percent of the domestic supply. The same year, according to the USDA, Kentucky farmers grew tomatoes in 1.1 million square feet of greenhouses on more than 300 farms.

Continue reading “AppHarvest’s Big Idea: Bringing Food Production Indoor At A Mammoth Kentucky Greenhouse”

I Wish, I Will

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NEW YORK — The three-day Clinton Global Initiative concluded with a flurry of new commitments including a five-year, $4 billion pledge by Pacific Gas & Electric and Ausra to build solar thermal generating stations that both companies says is cost-competitive with fossil fuel generation. California-based Ausra will build at least 1,000 megawatts of solar power plants and PG&E will purchase at least 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal, and the deal will eliminate over 36 million tons of CO2 emissions in California and neighboring states over the next 20 years. Other projects announced here were these:

  • FourWinds Capital Management said it will invest $300 million to develop investment programs that focus on planting, harvesting, and processing of novel sources of bio-fuels using emerging technologies in tropical regions that offer significant environmental and social benefits in addition to alternative energy sources. The investment company also said it would develop a $1 billion global investment program to assist large cities and rural areas in improving their environmental infrastructure, with a particular focus on waste and water management systems.
  • Geothermal Power Company of Iceland committed to spending $150 million to help countries in the African Rift Valley develop geothermal energy resources. The project will invest in comprehensive research into the geothermal potential of Djibouti, and if successful, will build a large power plant driven on geothermal power.
  • Sea Studios Foundation, a Monterey-based documentary film production company, will produce a $16 million integrated media initiative to help audiences understand the connections between seemingly unrelated problems-and solutions-in global health, poverty, climate change, and the environment. Using television, the Internet, and new media, the studio’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth 2020”  series will include periodic primetime television events featuring Edward Norton; an interactive Web site hosted by PBS.org, an iTunes video Podcast series, ongoing “Search for Solutions” contests to foster user-generated content and showcase high-impact opportunities to make a difference, and live screening events involving the public, business leaders, opinion leaders, and policymakers.
  • The Apollo Alliance, the City of Newark, and the Center for American Progress committed to organize Newark’s Green Future Summit in the Spring of 2008. The idea is to identify best practices and mobilize the resources to help Newark catch up with Chicago, Portland, Seattle, New York and other cities that are showcases for prosperity that emerges from developing a clean energy-efficient, green economic development strategy.

These and more than 200 other commitments announced this week were said by President Bill Clinton to touch “at least 100 million people worldwide.” The scope and numbers are stunning, even if half of what was announced here this week is actually executed. Mr. Clinton asserted that nearly 10 million children not in school around the world will enroll for the first time. Some 50 million people will gain access to treatment for neglected tropical diseases. Some 170 million acres of forest will be conserved and restored, an area equal in size to Italy and Switzerland combined. And 11 million adults, most of them women, will gain access to industries and durable jobs.

I wasn’t the only observer who found the proceedings disorienting. There really isn’t anything quite like this conference anywhere on the planet. The Aspen Ideas Festival convenes a similar array of prominent thinkers and voices. The World Economic Forum is much larger and, I’m told, more perceptive and far-reaching in its choice of subjects and how far it asks panelists to advance their thinking. The United Nations, which also convened in New York last week, attracts more global leaders. But none of these, nor any other international conference, does as well in attracting such diverse leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (see pix). And none is motivated so clearly by one person seeking to make the world a better place and successfully making the ask so that not $millions, not $billions, but that something close to $10 billion is committed by individuals, companies, governments, and foundations to execute an incredible array of worthy projects. More was done to help solve the global warming crisis in these three days than the United Nations or the United States has done in half a decade.

Several more big ideas of the 21st century are at work here. The first is that important industrial companies, particularly those in pharmaceuticals, energy, utlitities, and online media see the value of reducing human and global stress to improving their bottom lines. There’s money to be made in solving misery, not only in the development and delivery of new products, but also in fostering collaborations that help companies gain access to new global markets. The second big idea, one that is becoming Mr. Clinton’s signature in this phase of his life, is the value of what he calls “giving back.”  He frames this in the context of the difference between I wish and I will. There were a lot of willing people in New York last week. 

Michigan’s Energy Schizophrenia

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Late last month I had the chance to spend the day with scientists at Michigan State University who are involved in carrying out the work of the new Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a partnership between MSU and the University of Wisconsin financed by a five-year, $125 million federal research grant. It is one of three such centers across the country determined to fill America’s national gas tank with fuel made from plants. Bruce Dale, a chemical engineer at MSU and one of the campus leaders on this topic, told me he’s convinced that “we can replace all of our imported oil with liquid fuels produced from crops.”

Whether that is possible without causing shortages of staple crops, higher food prices, and serious unintended consequences to soil, air, and water is a source of considerable debate in and out of academia. But many respected authorities say it is, including the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization, and the WorldWatch Institute, a global environmental research group based in Washington. A full account of how Michigan State has emerged at the center of biofuels research and development will be in the New York Times on November 7.   

But as I toured the genetic engineering labs, greenhouses, and the MSU crop and soil science farm I kept thinking there probably is no state in the country with such a powerful case of energy schizophrenia. 

Just check out what’s going on this state.

First, MSU has assembled a team of nearly 100 researchers and faculty members, spanning almost a dozen departments, to develop the basic science to produce new varieties of ethanol-rich crops, like switchgrass and miscanthus (see pix), new biological recipes to speed fermentation and enzymatic breakdown, new industrial processes to make the products of the nation’s new biorefineries cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. If Bruce Dale and his colleagues get this right, the bio-fuels economy will be much cleaner, more environmentally sensitive, and more economically productive, especially for America’s farm country.  Massachusetts-based Mascoma is so enthused about MSU’s prominence on biofuels science and development it announced earlier this year that it will build a plant here to convert wood wastes to ethanol, an expected $100 million-plus investment. 

Second, on Monday in East Lansing, Michigan State also is holding the first “Manufacturing and Developing Wind Energy Systems in Michigan” conference. More than 200 industrialists, utility industry executive, business leaders, policy specialists, researchers, and investors are expected to attend the two-day event. The intent of the conference is to stimulate the $20 billion global wind industry’s interest in settling in Michigan to design and manufacture generating equipment, and also to recruit companies to develop the state’s potential as a source of wind energy. The Department of Energy produced a wind map in 2004 that said Michigan was the 14th windiest state in the country, capable of generatiing enough electricity from wind as 23 new coal-fired power plants. The Land Policy Institute at MSU, which organized the conference, says that landowners also could benefit from thousands of dollars in annual leasing fees for every one of the big windmills they allow on their ground. 

And third, while MSU develops the science of clean energy, state utilities have proposed building at least six new coal-fired power plants in Michigan. In a state where mercury from coal has contaminated almost every inland lake, where the snow sports industry is melting away, and where citizens by a wide margin support renewable fuels that make the state more competitive and produce more jobs,  the last thing Michigan needs is to fuel its new economy with such a dirty source of energy. But that message isn’t reaching the state capital, where Governor Jennifer M. Granholm says she supports at least one new coal plant, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce expresses skepticism about conservation, renewable energy, or any change in convention other than its steadfast promotion of every form of energy produced by its members in the fossil fuel industry.

Before Grassoline, Settling A Dispute Among Experts

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David Pimentel, an ecologist who spent all of his career at Cornell University after earning his doctorate in entomology in 1951, is one of the most respected environmental scientists of his generation. He was among the select group of young ecologists who in the 1960s first identified the environmental and public health hazards of farm chemicals, and helped build the scientific case for healthier, more environmentally-sensitive agriculture practices. The fact that organic crops are the fastest growing sector of the American food production system owes a considerable debt to Dr. Pimentel’s scholarship and advocacy. Dr. Pimentel also has spent almost 30 years, ever since he chaired a federal Energy Department advisory committee  in 1979 that looked at the potential of plant-derived ethanol,  as the nation’s most important opponent of turning the might of American agriculture to fuel our cars.

Bruce Dale is a 57 -year-old chemical engineer who was born in Nevada, raised in Arizona, and is among the most decorated process scientists of his generation. After stints teaching at Colorado State University and Texas A&M, Dr. Dale joined the faculty of Michigan State University in 1996 to chair the chemical engineering department and prepare for the biofuels boom that he anticipated would emerge as petroleum prices rose to unmanageable levels. He is now the associate director of MSU’s  Office of Bio-based Technolgy, helping to coordinate an interdisciplinary team of scientists and social theorists that span more than a dozen departments at the nation’s second largest university. He also is  one of the five team leaders of the Great Lakes Bio-Engineering Research Center, a collaboration between MSU and the University of Wisconsin that earlier this year was awarded a $125 million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy to develop the scientific foundations for vastly expanding the American production and processing industry that is turning plants into transportation fuels.  

Over the last two years, almost unnoticed by the mainstream media but with increasing visibility in policy, industrial, capital, and scientific circles, Dr. Pimentel and Dr. Dale have been locked in a profound disagreement about the usefulness of producing fuel from plants. On the most basic human level, the strikingly different conclusions that these two eminent experts draw about the perils or promise of biofuels is the most personal high-profile scientific disagreement since the 1980s . During that era economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland bet Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich that the prices of five key metals would either rise because of the trend to ever more scarce natural resources, as Dr. Ehrlich predicted, or fall because of innovation, as Dr. Simon said. In 1990, Dr. Ehrlich conceded defeat, an event that helped lay the intellectual foundation of the free market attack on American environmental laws as overly restrictive and pessimistic.

The expert disagreement between Dr. Dale and Dr. Pimentel rivals the earlier dispute in substance and significance. Dr. Pimentel’s analysis has influenced public opinion and the media, including this blog, with a penetrating critique of the environmental safety and economic wisdom of committing to a fuel production sector based on crop science, agronomy, and new processing technology. Dr. Dales asserts, though, that the Pimentel analysis is flawed in its basic construction. Those flaws, he argues, are impeding the progress of a vital sector in the green economy that promises to be much more environmentally sensitive to soil, air, and water even as it builds a new regional farm production and processing economy that will benefit rural America, and the Middle West in particular. To hear Dr. Dale tell it, generating the production capacity to fill tanks with what he calls “grassoline” could  be as essential to the Midwest’s new prosperity as the digital economy has been to the Pacific Rim states.

At the core of the discord is an analysis of how much energy it takes to make a gallon of fuel from ethanol versus how much energy that same gallon produces. Technical folk call this the “net energy” balance. Dr. Pimentel asserts that producing ethanol from corn yields a negative net energy balance, meaning it takes more energy to make a gallon of ethanol from corn than the energy produced. His calculations gained credence because of the energy intensive practices involved in growing corn — lots of irrigation, farm chemicals, fertilizers, and  fuel go into its production. Essentially, he argued, it takes as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as the energy that results. 

But more recently, Dr. Pimentel has made the same assertion about producing fuel from switchgrass and other crops that yield higher levels of biomass from which to produce ethanol, and can be grown with much fewer inputs.  Producing ethanol from switchgrass, according to MSU plant scientists, involves planting the crop once, applying no farm chemicals, and much less fertilizer than is used to produce corn, and harvesting the crop once a year.

Dr. Dale, meanwhile, argues that “net energy” critics are “dead wrong and dangerously misleading.”   Here’s why, he says. Producing a mega jule (MJ) of gasoline, a unit of energy measure, requires 1.1 MJ of petroleum, 0.03 MJ of natural gas, and 0.05 MJ of coal. The total fossil fuel input is 1.18 MJ per 1 MJ of gasoline or a – 18 percent net energy balance. Producing a MJ of ethanol, meanwhile, takes 0.04 MJ of petroleum, 0.28 MJ of natural gas, and 0.41 MU of coal, for a total fossil fuel input of 0.73 MJ. Thus producing ethanol, says Dr. Dale, yields a +.27 percent net energy balance, considerably better than gasoline. 

Corn ethanol also produces 18 percent less global warming gases than gasoline, says Dr. Dale. Ethanol made from switchgrass produces 88 percent less global warming gases, and its use would displace petroleum as a fuel source, reducing reliance on imported oil and all of the useful results that would confer on the nation. 

Settling this rupture is not about who’s right, but who’s wrong. If Dr. Dale is wrong, then pursuing the biofuels future he advocates would be irresponsibly expensive to taxpayers, cause enormous environmental damage, and do nothing to loosen the noose that rising oil prices and diminishing supply has wrapped around the nation’s neck. If Dr. Pimentel is wrong then a promising green economy that reduces environmental damage, shores up the Midwest’s flagging farm economy, curtails America’s dependence on imported petroleum, and fosters a new community-based green fuel production and distribution system could be seriously weakened by a public backlash predicated on faulty data.

Dr. Pimentel, in an email message to me this week, said, “I am quite familiar with Bruce Dale’s arguments. I am sure you are aware that no one else supports his views on energy analyses. Some chemcial engineers have told me that that Bruce does not understand thermodynamics.”

Two years ago David Morris, a researcher and vice president of the Institute For Local Self Reliance, a respected public interest organization in Minneapolis, analyzed the “net energy” debate and in a widely-read report responded this way to the question about whether it takes more energy to make ethanol than is contained in ethanol: “In 1980, the short and empirical answer to the question was yes. By 1990, because of improved efficiencies by both farmer and ethanol manufacturers the answer was, probably not.  In 2005 the answer is clearly no.”

No doubt, I’ll be reporting more on this as we go along.  

Flip: Interactively Documenting Factory Farms

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Among the priority hazards of joining capital and technology the way we do in the 21st Century is that it can blow up the ordinary and familiar — a farm, for instance — into shapes and sizes that are extraordinary. That is what’s happening in Michigan and in many other states in animal agriculture. American meat, poultry, and milk, increasingly, are produced on immense sites that have come to be known as “factory farms.” For those who haven’t followed this development, one problem is that confining huge numbers of animals produces quantities of manure that often exceed the levels of raw sewage produced by major cities.  A second problem is that neither the federal government nor the states require modern waste water pollution controls. Owners of factory farms, several of them multi-billion dollar food companies, have convinced state legislators they are mere farmers, unable to afford the settling basins, digesters, and filtration equipment that municipalities have used for years to clean their waste water. Instead they generally dump manure into smelly lagoons that inevitably leak and pollute the nearest stream or lake. 

In this edition of Flip, Mode Shift’s spotlight of useful applications of Internet technology, we draw your attention to the interactive Factory Farm Map, which details how many factory farms there are in the United States, and does so state by state, county by county, and sector by sector. The map, for example, can show you have many factory dairy farms there are in Barry County, Michigan (3), the number of factory hog farms in Allegan County (38), and how many cattle operations exist in Huron County (13). The Factory Farm Map is a genuine breakthrough in data gathering and presentation for a sector of the agriculture industry that is deserving of the pubic attention it is starting to attract. 

My organization, the Michigan Land Use Institute, has been interested in factory farms  since our founding in 1995.  Patty Cantrell, who wrote “Hog Wars,” a first-of -its-kind report on the subject while working for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center early in her career, brought that expertise to Michigan in 1998 and helped build the statewide campaign to limit the expansion of factory farms. Three years ago, Stephanie Rudolph, an intern from Haverford College then and now a graduate fellow at the Institute, reported on the worst of all factory farm polluters in Michigan, the Vreba-Hoff dairy farms of Hillsdale County. In 2004, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s administration brought sanctions against the farm that have curtailed pollution.  

The Factory Farm Map was produced by Food and Water Watch, a non-profit healthy food organization founded last year in Washington. The New York Times this morning noted the map’s contribution to the public interest in an editorial: “It’s important to read this map not as a static record of farm sites or a mere inventory of animals,” the paper said. “It is really a map of overwhelming change and conflict. It raises two of the fundamental questions facing American agriculture. Do we pursue the logic of industrialism to its limits in a biological landscape? And how badly will doing so harm the landscape, the people who live in it and the democracy with which they govern themselves?”