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”

Confrontation of The Century – Gas vs. Renewables

TVA’s big combined cycle natural gas generating station in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky opened two years ago. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Last September California affirmed its commitment to supply all of the state’s annual demand for electricity with renewable sources of energy by 2045. New Mexico enacted similar 100 percent renewable legislation. This month Minnesota pledged to be the third U.S. state to achieve 100 percent renewable electrical generation, committing to do so by 2050.

The three states are joined by nine other states considering the 100 percent commitment, and 100 American cities that made the 100 percent renewable pledge.

Bravo! In the global contest to slow the advance of warming and dangerous meteorology Americans are investing in industrial evolution and human safety. The idea that clean energy is a path to planetary sanity is alive with elected leaders in American cities, and select counties and states. The advance of the rational energy brigade was felt only three years ago in the White House and Congress, too. But maybe that changes in 2020.

But even as technology, competitive prices, and consumer demand opens electricity markets to clean energy — at a rate considerably faster than most energy analysts anticipated — one fierce headwind is pushing hard to stall the advance. Behind that headwind is a storm of natural gas.

Since 2010, when I first reported on the unconventional energy boom sweeping across the United States and Canada, the dimensions of the development of new sources of oil and natural gas have only grown larger. Last year developers produced 29 trillion cubic feet of gas or 79 billion cubic feet per day. This year, according to the Energy Information Administration, wells in the United States are projected to produce 101 billion cubic feet per day.

Royal Dutch Shell is building a $10 billion chemical plant to turn ethane into polyethylene for plastics manufacturing. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

Continue reading “Confrontation of The Century – Gas vs. Renewables”

California’s Fire Calamity

Wildfire does not discriminate. It incinerates homes of wealthy families and the poor. Photo/Keith Schneider

REDDING, CA. — Cities along the Carolina coast were under water this month. Neighborhoods in California’s northern highlands were incinerated in July and August. Mother Earth is pushing back hard in this quickly unfolding era of ecological menace and there are twice as many people in the way as there were 40 years ago.

I’m in California reporting for ProPublica on the causes and the solutions to the state’s wildfire emergency. You’ve heard something no doubt. The fires are getting bigger, more dangerous, more destructive. What you probably haven’t heard is that this fire calamity has been anticipated for 35 years.

The federal and state governments are pouring a tide of money into fire fighting responses that are not working, and killing the men battling these fires. More effective, much less expensive, less ecologically damaging, and safer tactics to prevent fires have been pushed to the side. Reason: lawsuits, ideological intransigence from environmentalists and industrialists, legislative momentum to pay for war-like militaristic air and ground “attack” teams to battle the flames, and bureaucratic frustration and exhaustion by forest managers.

The single spark from a tire blowout that ignited the inferno here in Redding was the last deadly step in a long, stupefying, characteristically demoralizing tale of the nation that we’ve become: litigious, science rejecting, intransigent, money grubbing, finger pointing, blame shifting. It’s a rotten story.

More later.

— Keith Schneider

Destroyed home in Redding. Photo/Keith Schneider

Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters

In July, 39 people were killed and 6,600 left homeless after a big hydropower dam collapsed in Laos.

Like a herd of wild bulls, raging floodwaters stampeded across a highland plateau in July and tore a hole in the mammoth Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower complex dam in south central Laos. The boiling torrent crashed downstream from the nearly completed $1 billion dam, drowning 39 people identified so far, leaving over 100 more missing, and forcing more than 6,600 people out of their homes and into temporary government housing.

Little more than a month later, on August 29, floodwaters caused an irrigation dam to burst at Swar creek in central Myanmar, flooding 85 villages.Two people are missing.

The two catastrophes, both connected to the increasing ferocity of drenching storms in Southeast Asia, are an epochal moment of reckoning for the financiers, builders and managers of big dams, especially the mammoth hydropower dams that nations are so intent on building despite the vivid and mounting risks. Mega dam developers are being challenged by fierce ecological havoc, as well as climbing costs, civic resistance, and engineering lapses. The result is that dams around the world are failing at a rate never seen before. In Southeast Asia alone three big dams have failed in the last year. A second hydropower dam failed in northern Laos in September 2017.

“There have always been big projects that failed,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major program management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and a widely cited global authority on mega projects. “What is different now is that we have many more mega projects, they are much bigger, and there are spectacular failures that are more visible.”

The deadly collapse in Laos is a case in point. Until the Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy disaster, Laotian leaders viewed mega hydro dam construction as a safe path to strengthening their treasury. The tiny landlocked nation of 7.1 million people set out to encourage domestic and international financiers and contractors to build over 100 big hydropower projects to sell electricity to its fast-growing Southeast Asia neighbors and to serve its own rising power demands. According to the Laotian government, two thirds of the country’s hydropower is exported, which accounts for almost a third of its export revenue.

In late August, an irrigation dam collapsed in Myanmar and flooded 85 villages.

More than 50 dams are in various stages of planning and construction, according to government reports. As a whole, Laos is undertaking one of the world’s largest hydropower development programs. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters”

30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S., is steadily drying as long-term drought settles on the American Southwest. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — This was the week 30 years ago, third week of June 1988, that global warming rose to the top of the list of national priorities. I was a young correspondent for the New York Times that summer, dispatched to Montana and the northern Great Plains to report on an unfolding drought so deep that elderly farmers told me it reminded them of Dust Bowl conditions a half century before.

On June 23 that week, the day after I returned to my desk in Washington, James Hansen, one of NASA’s top scientists, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Earth was warming. Hansen said he was “99 percent certain” it was the result of human activity. Hansen’s testimony received powerful validation from broad print and TV news coverage in the U.S. and in Europe.

Later that summer a mammoth wildfire raced across Yellowstone. It’s gotten steadily more dangerous since.

I was in the car two weeks ago listening to Rush Limbaugh aggressively make a religious case that, and I’m paraphrasing, mankind could not possibly be powerful enough to produce forces capable of altering the global atmosphere. Only God was capable of that. And, said Limbaugh, if there actually was any evidence of the meteorological disruption described by liberals, scientists, and the ridiculous mainstream media, God was responsible.

Limbaugh’s frustrating assessment reflects a popular theological doctrine that justifies a political construct. Half the country rejects irrefutable evidence of climate change. The back story, of course, is how impediments to climate action support the fossil fuel industry and its user group allies — utilities, railroads, airlines, vehicle manufacturers, elected officials. They are flat out scared breathless by the prospect that $20 trillion in black fuel reserves still in the ground will get stranded.

Climate change is battering Malaysia. A titanic storm last year brought down this retaining wall on Penang island, destroying residences about to open. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

If God is to be thanked, we all should express our gratitude to her/him that the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s market-buffeting interference, has maintained a good bit of its Obama-era momentum to shift the electric-generating sector from coal and gas to renewables. Other nations in Europe and Asia are going there too, and much faster than anybody anticipated. Continue reading “30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right”