Start-Up Is Building Largest Greenhouse in U.S., Creating 285 Jobs in Kentucky

(p. B6) MOREHEAD, Ky. — Proximity to big markets is crucial for the fresh produce business.

So when AppHarvest, a two-year-old start-up, was looking for a site for a greenhouse, it picked a 366-acre field in Rowan County just outside Morehead, a university town in eastern Kentucky.

The greenhouse, the largest in the United States, will be just a day’s drive from almost 70 percent of American consumers, including those who love fresh tomatoes.

Next summer, when AppHarvest begins production at its $97 million building, 285 employees will start 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.

For the greenhouse to be cost-effective, size was as important as location. The 60-acre, 2.76-million-square-foot building will be big enough to lower costs on materials, production and distribution.

“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. “We have to compete with produce coming from 2,000 miles away.”

. . .

Mr. Webb, the son of a Kentucky machinery dealer who was raised in nearby Lexington, said he always planned to build something big in Kentucky. Years of research, and the state’s abundance of land and water, drew him to agriculture.

This colossal plot in Morehead is only the first step in Mr. Webb’s ambitious plan. The next is to be so successful that other greenhouse growers follow AppHarvest to the state.

His hope, he said, is to rejuvenate the state’s economy, devastated by the collapse of the coal industry, with a “sustainable produce hub” that would turn Kentucky into “the agtech capital” of the United States. Mr. Webb also plans to build huge AppHarvest greenhouses in other eastern Kentucky communities.

. . .

Mr. Webb’s vision, and his skill in selling it, attracted robust support from the state, venture capitalists, vegetable marketers and Dutch greenhouse and electronics manufacturers.

In May, Mr. Webb persuaded the managers of Equilibrium Capital’s Controlled Environment Foods Fund to invest nearly $100 million to build the greenhouse. He raised millions more from the ValueAct Spring Fund and from the venture capital firm Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund to finance the company’s engineering, administration, staff and start-up operations. Rise of the Rest, a $150 million fund established in 2017 by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and chairman of Revolution, typically invests $100,000 to $1 million in local start-ups through pitch competitions, according to its website.

“We just believed no matter what obstacles came up with AppHarvest, this is the guy who could get it done,” said J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and managing partner of Rise of the Rest. “You want to invest in people who won’t run away at the first sign of trouble.”

For the full story, see:

Keith Schneider. “SQUARE FEET; Building a Colossus to Feed the Masses.” The New York Times (Wednesday, September 4, 2019): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 3, 2019, and has the title “SQUARE FEET; A Greenhouse Large Enough to Feed the Eastern Seaboard.”)

The Vance book mentioned above, is:

Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

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