Jonathan Webb: “Our current food system is broken, and food security is a global, pressing concern”

Our current food system is broken, and food security is a global, pressing concern. There are many variables that make traditional outdoor agriculture unreliable and affect the ability to predict yield, one being climate change. California is plagued by wildfires and the Southwest U.S. where our country has traditionally grown much of its fruits and […]

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Our current food system is broken, and food security is a global, pressing concern. There are many variables that make traditional outdoor agriculture unreliable and affect the ability to predict yield, one being climate change. California is plagued by wildfires and the Southwest U.S. where our country has traditionally grown much of its fruits and vegetables is drought-stricken. In February of this year, we had major ice storms that dipped as far South as Texas and stopped imported fruits and vegetables from coming across the border where we have typically sourced most of our vine crop production. Those fruits and vegetables get shipped thousands of miles to make it to our plates — with questionable practices around labor and pesticide use.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Webb.

Kentucky native Jonathan Webb is the founder and CEO of AppHarvest, an AgTech company that is building a resilient food system through a network of large-scale, high-tech indoor farms from the heart of Appalachia. AppHarvest is currently one of only four publicly traded companies that is both B Corp certified and a public benefit corporation (PBC). The company combines agricultural techniques with technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence to grow more with less resources, producing non-GMO, chemical pesticide-free produce for the top 25 U.S. grocers.

Before founding AppHarvest, Jonathan worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on large solar projects. The project was designed to achieve a White House goal of ensuring the military’s hundreds of installations generated resilient on-site power and received 20% of the electricity from renewable sources by 2025. While living in Washington D.C. and developing these sustainable energy farms, Jonathan researched another type of farming based in the Netherlands with high-tech greenhouses that yield 30 times traditional agriculture and virtually eliminate the use of chemicals.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in Central Appalachia, and my great-grandfather’s death in a coal-mining accident marked my grandmother‘s childhood with the kind of uncertainty that no child should ever endure. Central Appalachia has long powered our country, but the rapid collapse of the coal industry in the wake of the positive advances in renewable energy has left our community in dire need of a more resilient economy.

My background is in large-scale solar development projects for the Department of Defense, one of the country’s biggest energy consumers. When I was in D.C., all the talk was about energy security. But an even more pressing issue is food security. Our current system is broken due to the increasing number of variables such as extreme weather, droughts, fire and contamination by animals that make our food system unreliable.

Studies by the United Nations predict that we’ll need 70% more food by 2050 to feed a growing population. If we continue farming as we do now, that would mean we would need a second Earth to have enough resources. That’s why I founded AppHarvest — controlled environment agriculture (CEA) solves for many of those challenges.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Every day is interesting at AppHarvest, and one of the reasons for that is the folks I’ve come in contact with while building this dream of becoming one of the world’s most trusted sustainable foods companies. That trust starts internally, with treating your people right, which is part of our social mission. We’re a certified living wage company and offer a benefits package we think is best-in-class for the agriculture sector. I was very humbled by seeing some of our team members brought to tears because they had never owned a car or a house and were finally able to afford those things by making a living wage and receiving benefits that can equal up to hundreds of dollars a month for employees and their families.

One of the most interesting moments in my life was the first time Martha Stewart tasted tomatoes from the farm. I spent a good amount of time hand-picking each tomato to put in the box we sent her, and I barely made the deadline to overnight them to her. I held my breath almost the entire time until I heard back, but Martha loved them and said they were fabulous. Fortunately, our customers have been agreeing and asking for more. We’re all looking forward for our next two farms that are currently under construction to produce a harvest so we can let Martha try our leafy greens and berries to get her feedback.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I believe in the collective benefit over individual gain. When I founded AppHarvest, I wanted it to be a mission-driven company focused on environmental, social and governance principals. We are now one of only four companies traded on any exchange that is both a public benefit corporation and B Corp Certified, which means we have set ourselves against the highest ESG standards. Everything we do is for positive change in agriculture, the environment and the communities we’re in.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

AppHarvest is an AgTech company that is working to build a resilient food system through a network of large-scale, high-tech indoor farms that can be replicated anywhere across the globe. We are farmers and futurists, setting a new standard for sustainable, ethical agriculture.

Our flagship farm spans 60-acres in Morehead, Ky. and is designed to grow 40 million pounds of tomatoes on 720,000 plants annually. The facility takes advantage of natural resources to maximize efficiency and sustainability. With almost 60 acres of roof surface area and 10 acres of pond surface area, the facility’s gutter system collects rainwater for irrigation so it is independent of municipal water, and because of the closed-loop irrigation system which delivers the exact amount of nutrients to the plants, AppHarvest is able to use 90% less water than traditional open-field agriculture models with zero agricultural runoff.

We chose to plant our roots in Central Appalachia because it is less than a day’s drive to 70% of the U.S. population, which can lower transportation costs by about 80% compared to foreign imports, allowing AppHarvest’s produce to be harvested at prime freshness for a high-quality product.

How do you think this will change the world?

Our current food system is broken, and food security is a global, pressing concern. There are many variables that make traditional outdoor agriculture unreliable and affect the ability to predict yield, one being climate change. California is plagued by wildfires and the Southwest U.S. where our country has traditionally grown much of its fruits and vegetables is drought-stricken. In February of this year, we had major ice storms that dipped as far South as Texas and stopped imported fruits and vegetables from coming across the border where we have typically sourced most of our vine crop production. Those fruits and vegetables get shipped thousands of miles to make it to our plates — with questionable practices around labor and pesticide use.

The U.N. predicts we will need 70% more food by 2050 to feed a growing population. If we continue farming as we do now, that means we would need a second planet Earth to have enough resources. The world doesn’t have land, and it doesn’t have fresh water. But what we do have at AppHarvest is the technology and a solution. In Central Appalachia, we’re fortunate because climate change is making our region wetter, with the past decade seeing the most rainfall in Kentucky history.

Our technology and approach can enable us to get up to 30 times the yield of traditional agriculture — using up to 90% less water, and only recycled rainwater, with zero chemical pesticides and zero agricultural runoff.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

I am confident that our AppHarvest model will continue bringing positive change for generations to come. As a country and across the globe, the focus has to be on greening the grid to create a broader system where all the individual components working together are equally sustainable supporting one another. I am encouraged by the prospect of expanding these renewable energy sources in the U.S.

AppHarvest is addressing environmental challenges by leveraging sustainable alternatives, allowing us to operate more efficiently, to create higher quality yields and to extend harvesting days. We use 100% recycled rainwater in a closed loop irrigation system, which allows us to produce zero agricultural runoff and water waste, and we use passive solar with supplemental hybrid lighting array of LEDs and high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting, to name a few.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The more I dug into our country’s need for both a resilient food supply and greater access for all to nutritious foods, I realized America’s food systems have failed us.

As coal mines closed and no businesses replaced them, we saw nearly 30% of our friends and neighbors in Appalachia, including 37% of children, enduring poverty. This region desperately needs investment from responsible companies, creating jobs that prioritize the employee.

America has fashioned a neatly coined term of “food deserts” to explain how difficult it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But access is just one part of the problem. We also lack the education to teach kids why it’s so important to eat healthy. Obesity has long reached epidemic proportions. Outside of

Appalachia, 27% of Americans are obese. Inside Central Appalachia, that rate is nearly 30% higher.

Beyond making it difficult even to buy fruits and vegetables, America’s decision to outsource their farming has left us with tasteless, chemical pesticide-laden produce at grocery stores. More than 70% of fresh vine crops, everything from tomatoes and berries to cucumbers and peppers, started their journey here from foreign countries. Traveling days on trucks, they ripen along the way, having been picked by workers earning far less than living wages.

It’s past time for America to address these failings and time for businesses to take the lead.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Controlled environment agriculture is now what wind and solar were ten to fifteen years ago, and we pumped billions of dollars of funding into that field. CEA is the third wave of sustainable infrastructure — following renewable energy and electric vehicles. We have to create awareness and funding to expand the industry.

We know that part of that awareness is education. AppHarvest has built a program to work with Eastern Kentucky high schools to incorporate AgTech curriculum through high-tech container farms retrofitted from shipping containers. Students have the opportunity to grow their own food and learn about nutrition.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I wish someone had told me to expect the challenge to be so much harder than you ever can anticipate but the harder the work, the more meaningful the impact. If you want to radically change something, nothing about it is easy. Setting a vision is the easy part. Shaping how culture forms over time — making sure that folks are motivated by purpose and mission and sticking to your guiding light when you’re faced with many divergent opinions — that’s the challenge and where being authentic to your founder’s vision and yourself is so critical — and what will create your sustainable success.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

To be successful, you have to have the faith and grit to refuse to back down from challenges. There will be instances when people will say your vision can’t be accomplished. Less than two years ago, AppHarvest broke ground on our 60-acre flagship farm in Morehead, Ky. — that’s 50 football fields under glass. We completed construction and assembled a 500-person operating team in the middle of a global pandemic. And we’re just getting started, with plans to build and operate 12 farms by the end of 2025. If that’s not faith and grit, I don’t know what is.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

AppHarvest grows healthy and nutritious produce on a large scale, sustainably, using a fraction of the resources required in traditional agriculture. We do this by leveraging technology, infrastructure and our location in Appalachia, which benefits from climate change increasing our annual rainfall as well as its access to about 70% of the U.S. population within a day’s drive.

Our tomatoes are sold in the top 25 retail grocers and food service outlets, like Kroger and Wendy’s. Grocers and consumers increasingly are requesting U.S.-grown and chemical pesticide-free produce from companies they trust. Despite that, in 2019, more than 2/3 of vine crops for the U.S. market were imported. Because we’re doing this at scale — we can deliver this produce for about the same price as standard.

Our first Morehead facility is about the size of 50 football fields and is designed to produce more than 40 million pounds of tomatoes annually — and we expect to have 12 high-tech farms operating by the end of 2025. We will expand beyond tomatoes — next to leafy greens and strawberries. Our long-term strategy is to build AppHarvest into one of the world’s most trusted sustainable foods companies in the U.S., which can be replicated globally. That provides opportunity in the future for value-added products and international ventures. This is farming now.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter @JonathanWebbKY, Instagram @webbjonathan and LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanwebbinfo/.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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