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AgTech in the Mountains: Creating a Resilient Appalachian Economy

AppHarvest is building some of America's largest high-tech greenhouses to grow non-GMO, chemical-free produce in Appalachia.

Photo of Scott Sloan
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Lead Applicant Organization Name


Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Morehead, Kentucky

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Central Appalachia (77,112 square kilometers)

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Why locate in Central Appalachia? Like many Kentuckians, AppHarvest Founder Jonathan Webb grew up knowing of the devastating job losses in the region, as the dominant coal industry collapsed. The industry held a personal tie for him as well, as his grandmother was raised in Whitley County, Kentucky, where a coal mining accident killed his great-grandfather. 

The coal industry has seen employment fall by more than 30,000 since 2011. Throughout Appalachia, one in four residents live in poverty. In Morehead, Kentucky, where AppHarvest’s first controlled-environment agriculture facility is under construction, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 23.7% of residents live in poverty compared to just 12.3% nationally. 

Jonathan strives to work alongside the hard-working men and women of Eastern Kentucky and build a resilient 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.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The hard-hit region of Central Appalachia encompasses West Virginia through Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Mountain chains weave throughout the region, including the Blue Ridge, the Cumberlands and Alleghenies. The region is rich in natural resources — most notably coal — and its ecosystems are among the world’s most biodiverse. Despite this natural wealth, one in four residents live below the poverty line. Education, healthcare, employment and environmental challenges persist. 

The Appalachian region traditionally relied on coal mining jobs to sustain the economy. But coal production fell nearly 45 percent from 2005 to 2015, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. Kentucky, where AppHarvest is based, saw its toughest year for coal mining in 2016, when jobs dipped to a 118-year low. Just since 2011, the region has lost about 33,500 mining jobs. But the economic distress belies a workforce that would be the envy of any industry. 

Today’s Appalachian job market is characterized by the following traits: 

- High employer satisfaction: 80 percent of Eastern Kentucky employers are satisfied or highly satisfied with their current workforce 

- High spirits: A spirit of perseverance, hard work, tenacity, ingenuity and dedication. 

- Strong work ethic: The workforce is humble and loyal with a strong work ethic and broad skill sets. 

- Jobs needed: In Eastern Kentucky, the unemployment rate was 9.5% as of July 2017—nearly double the national average. Most are willing to commute long distances (45 minutes or longer) for jobs. 

Educational challenges persist, though. In most Appalachian counties, the share of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree is below the national average of 27.5 percent. In more than 40 Central Appalachian counties, fewer than one in 10 adults has at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Food is also an important part of life in Appalachia. Yet only 19 percent of people living in Eastern Kentucky, where AppHarvest is based, get the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. According to a report by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the region’s rates of heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), injury, stroke, diabetes, and suicide are higher than the national average — dramatically so in rural areas and counties in economic distress. Obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity are all more prevalent in Appalachia than in the nation overall. Meanwhile the region is understaffed with health care professionals, including primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialty physicians, and dentists. 

Despite these challenges, Central Appalachia is a region rich in culture, including folk traditions in agriculture, music, arts and crafts. AppHarvest believes that Central Appalachia is a region of hard work, tenacity, and ingenuity, with a workforce rooted in faith and grit. It will persevere.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, which can lead to weight concerns, obesity and other chronic conditions. Rural residents are more likely than urban residents to experience such conditions; they live in areas characterized by lower socioeconomic status, lower likelihood of health insurance coverage, and limited access to safety nets and preventive medical services. Sadly, the result is a shorter life span. 

Only 19 percent of people living in Eastern Kentucky, where AppHarvest is based, get the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. They suffer higher rates of obesity and associated chronic conditions — even compared to other rural residents. In fact, Eastern Kentuckians have some of the highest rates of obesity in the U.S., estimated between 62.5% and 76.2%. According to a study published in the Journal of Rural Health, “In part, these consumption patterns stem from regional food ways, which tend to emphasize meats, biscuits, and fried foods over vegetables; these food preferences have become important components of rural Appalachian identities.” These preferences, shared among residents of the region, “serve as an expression of belonging that not only reaffirms cultural ties to place, but also to family and community.” The study’s authors propose that Appalachia’s preference for such foods is a barrier that keeps residents of the region from making healthy choices. 

Additionally, the study’s authors say the region’s shift from an economy based on farming and mining to one based on the service industry has created a rising dependence on fast food over traditional foods that are seen as taking too long to prepare. Other factors include: 

- Issues of food affordability 

- Limited access to high-quality grocery stores 

- Busier lifestyles 

- A spike in the number of fast food restaurants in Appalachian communities 

Given that Appalachian residents experience disproportionate risk of overweight, obesity, and associated negative health outcomes, new approaches to improve dietary intake are needed. These approaches will be most successful if they are grounded in local perspectives and address the interactions between regional food ways and shifting social, cultural, and economic contexts.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

AppHarvest is building some of America's largest high-tech greenhouses to grow non-GMO, chemical-free produce. Our first greenhouse in Morehead, Kentucky, will span 60 acres. 

Our central location in Appalachia is within a day’s drive of 70% of the U.S. population, ensuring our fruits and vegetables will be picked when they are ripe rather than aging up to a week on semi-trucks like foreign imports. 

We have plans to build additional greenhouses by 2022 and have raised more than $100 million in funding from investors, including Equilibrium, ValueAct Capital and the Rise of the Rest. We are working with some of the strongest leaders in the industry and the region to bring our vision to life. 

AppHarvest has created a framework to sell and distribute our produce to the top 25 grocers nationally. This model will bring a significant amount of agricultural production back to Central Appalachia, creating a regional source for fresh, organic food at conventional pricing. Controlled environment agriculture will allow us to produce 30 times the yield of open-field agriculture, growing year-round with high-tech lights and without weather and seasonal constraints. This will empower agricultural sustainability and resiliency regionally. 

We are committed to providing: 

- 5-7 new jobs per acre in an area with an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent 

- A talent pipeline with universities and second-chance employment programs 

- An upskilling program to provide educational opportunities to employees Appalachian residents can take pride that this locally grown produce is sold across the U.S. — that pride will help it become part of the area’s cultural identity and diet, replacing some of the unhealthy foods the region has traditionally chosen. 

AppHarvest is investing in the next generation of Eastern Kentuckians by providing opportunities to specialize in entrepreneurship and high-tech agriculture. Our partnerships with educational institutions reflect our goal to establish the region as a hub for AgTech technology and expertise. Collaborations with employment agencies and social services groups, such as Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program and Goodwill, reflect a commitment to providing quality employment opportunities. By working with these groups, we will multiply our impact. 

As a registered Benefit Corporation, AppHarvest is an advocate of using business as a force for good. It demonstrates our commitment to empowering our neighbors in Appalachia, driving positive environmental change, and improving the lives of our employees and community at large. Establishing Eastern Kentucky as America’s AgTech capital will serve to replicate the close-knit hub that exists in the Netherlands, the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural goods despite a land mass just one-third the size of Kentucky. Building a similar AgTech hub in Appalachia will result in a diverse system of intertwined entities focused on modern ag.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

AppHarvest aims to generate positive changes in Appalachia. Our vision is to work alongside the hard-working men and women of Eastern Kentucky and build a resilient economy for the future. In the near-term, our first greenhouse in Morehead, Kentucky, will add 285 much-needed jobs to the region. 

In the longer-term, each greenhouse we build will bring 5-7 new jobs per acre. Employees will be able to further their education through upskilling initatives, increasing educational attainment in an area that has long lagged the national average. Our talent pipeline with universities will allow more Appalachian natives to stay in the region after college, rather than being forced to move far from home for quality employment. 

Our efforts will increase regional access to fresh, non-GMO produce. AppHarvest farms can produce 30 times the yields of field-grown agriculture. Our tomatoes will be picked when ripe and delivered to grocery store shelves in as little as the same day, offering longer shelf lives for grocers and thereby reducing food waste. Residents of Appalachia can take pride in knowing their locally grown produce will reach dinner tables across the U.S., and national perceptions of the region as one of poor health will begin to shift. 

We will provide the region a safer food supply through innovative irrigation techniques harnessing rainwater that eliminate contamination and avoidance of harsh chemical pesticides and health-harming GMO seeds. 

Our approach to controlled-environment agriculture will respect Appalachia’s natural resources and rich ecosystem. Worldwide, agricultural nutrient runoff is polluting oceans, lakes and rivers, causing red tides and long-term ecosystem damage. But AppHarvest farms product zero agricultural runoff due to a sophisticated circular irrigation system that relies on a 10-acre rainwater retention pond as the exclusive source of water for the facility.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

AppHarvest’s vision for 2050 is that Central Appalachia will become the Silicon Valley of agriculture, a region completely revitalized under the mantle of providing sustainable, nourishing diets for the people of our region — and beyond. 

By 2050, the foundation we are building now — at our first 60-acre greenhouse in Morehead, Kentucky — will have grown to support entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and policy-makers. 

Instead of coal mines, the region’s now-bustling economy is built upon fresh, wholesome produce, an energy source for our bodies instead of our power grid. Rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes are down, and for the first time in a generation, the health gap between Appalachia and urban America has closed. Physicians and health care services have increased as the economy has rebounded. AppHarvest now operates dozens of greenhouses across the region. Our Appalachian economy has grown beyond producers and day laborers to include distributors and processors, supporting the retailers and restaurant prep teams that get our produce into the hands of the people who need it most. Waste recoverers will compost the produce that goes unused to help grow the next harvest. 

Beyond the food we eat today, we’re also empowering the next generation of AgTech innovators. From the groundwork we laid 30 years ago, our partnerships with K-12 and higher education institutions have flourished: our universities are now graduating record-breaking classes with AgTech degrees. 

Our coworking office space continues to draw researchers from across the country, providing them with access to controlled environment agriculture facilities and capital partners to advance new technologies. Many hope to replicate our success in their own communities. And then there are all the jobs that support this AgTech industry: construction, engineering, transportation, housing, training, and even tourism — AppHarvest’s annual music festival, now 30 years running, has become the Farm Aid of a new generation. 

How will AppHarvest do all this by 2050? It’s not our vision alone. We’ve already begun forming partnerships with numerous educational institutions, nonprofits and others. By working with these groups, we will multiply our impact now and in the coming decades. 

High School AgTech Education Program - Shelby Valley High School, Pikeville, KY: From a pool of 80 applicants, 30 students were chosen to join the inaugural AgTech class in early 2019. AppHarvest spent more than $150,000 to provide a high-tech container farm and curriculum to the school. The six-unit curriculum introduces the scientific, social and economic components of controlled-environment agriculture. For the fall 2019 semester, AppHarvest engaged five new schools to integrate the AgTech curriculum. 

- The Kentucky Department of Education was engaged to provide top-level review of the AgTech curriculum to ensure alignment with existing program standards. The Commissioner of Education and senior staff confirmed the curriculum is a fit and provides an interdisciplinary and vocational angle to the current program. 

- The Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, Kentucky’s oldest and largest educational cooperative, supports AppHarvest by providing connections to schools across the region as well as mutual collaboration with the Department of Education. 

- The Kentucky Future Farmers of America Association, a co-curricular organization for students enrolled in an approved program of agricultural education, provides direct access to agriculture education teachers across the state. This partnership facilitates targeted expansion of the high school program. 

College & University Partners

AppHarvest staff are developing partnerships with Eastern Kentucky’s leading institutions for higher education as well as the world’s premier AgTech research institution in The Netherlands. In partnership with universities, AppHarvest will provide coworking office space for researchers, access to controlled environment agriculture facilities for approved growers and research, and access to capital partners to provide investment for projects and technologies as agreed upon. 

- Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands will provide curriculum to American universities to facilitate expansion of educational opportunity. This includes establishing a research and education program in Eastern Kentucky and joint research in subjects like agro food robotics, greenhouse horticulture, and breeding.

- The University of Kentucky, the state’s premier university and largest land-grant institution, has partnered with AppHarvest to focus on horticulture and future directions for controlled environment agriculture education and research. With recent investment in faculty focused on controlled environment agriculture, the partnership will yield knowledge transfer (education, research, extension) and provide fresh opportunities for students to pursue advanced agricultural degrees. 

- Eastern Kentucky University, located in Richmond, Ky., has engaged with AppHarvest to pitch partnership ideas ranging from “The Business of Agriculture” guest lectures and greenhouse mentoring to collaborating on development of their new agricultural engineering certificate program aligning skill development with AppHarvest’s labor needs. The university also has a strong construction management program that is in review for expansion to support ancillary business development in the region. 

- The University of Pikeville, located in Pikeville, Ky., will implement an agricultural technology certification program that directly utilizes curriculum provided by HAS, a premier AgTech research institution in the Netherlands. The university is actively scoping development of an on-campus AgTech Research Institute focused on the development of cutting-edge agricultural optimization technologies. 

- Morehead State University, located in Morehead, Ky., will partner with AppHarvest to develop models of controlled-environment agriculture at scale in the United States and case studies. 

- Berea College, located in Berea, Ky., engages with AppHarvest to provide workforce research and development, as well as a work-study program to support high technology agriculture facilities. 

- Maysville Community and Technical College in Rowan County is actively engaged with AppHarvest in developing an adult education program focused on developing AgTech skills, thus providing a new pathway to an option for a non-degree credential in the field. 

Workforce Development & Social Support Partners 

- Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), the region’s largest workforce innovation board and an MOU partner with AppHarvest, provides a locally based platform to recruit Eastern Kentuckians to our Morehead greenhouse. EKCEP will provide AppHarvest with logistical support for a road show, wherein AppHarvest will visit five communities to host a targeted recruitment event. Additionally, EKCEP is exploring providing funding support for customized training and on-the-job training, including instructor stipend, materials, and 50% of wages to participate. 

- Goodwill Industries Inc., a national service organization and MOU partner, will provide soft skills training to all AppHarvest employees. Training will include a variety of topics about job readiness, encouraging them to reach their full potential and increase their earning potential. 

- Addiction Recovery Care (ARC), the region’s largest addiction recovery company, is partnering with AppHarvest to provide a path to employment for clients. Following a one-year recovery period, ARC clients are prepared for new chapters. AppHarvest will provide employment opportunities to women and men who have completed the program and are dedicated to working hard to maintain sobriety and advance their recovery. 

Farming & Environment Partners 

- American Farmland Trust (AFT), the largest farming-focused organization in the nation, is partnering with AppHarvest to identify how our controlled environment agriculture fits with their evolving interests. 

- Appalachian Wildlife Foundation (AWF), a non-profit organization based in southeast Kentucky and an MOU partner, is moving forward with plans to build a recreation center and destination in southeastern Kentucky. Our partnership will include mutual support for sharing relationship building and potentially assisting the center with installation of a small hydroponic demonstration display. 

Culture and Foodways Partners 

- AppHarvest has partnered with Hindman Settlement School, a non-profit organization and MOU partner, to refurbish a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse and to expand the school's foodways programming to highlight cultural, social, and health benefits of fresh foods. 

- Community Farm Alliance, a non-profit based in Berea, strives to “encourage cooperation among rural and urban citizens through leadership development and grassroots democratic processes to ensure an essential, prosperous place for family-scale agriculture in our economies and communities.” AppHarvest engages CFA to maintain a dialogue on local farming issues as related to developing an AgTech hub in the region. 

Business Development & Local Businesses

- SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that is a champion for Appalachia Kentucky, utilizes collaboration and innovation to establish a network of partners. An early partner for AppHarvest, SOAR has supported initiatives to expand the high school AgTech program, promote business development, and develop local entrepreneurs. 

- Blue Raven, a locally owned restaurant located in Pikeville, Ky., is utilizing leafy greens grown in the Shelby Valley High School Container Farm. Student farmers work with Matt Corbin, chef and owner, to provide needed greens.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Constanza Castano

Hi, Scott Sloan ! Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!

Thank you for sharing the AppHarvest's 2050 dreams with us. I encourage you to find like-minded Visionaries throughout this platform to exchange insights, feedback, and possible collaborations.

Please make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.

Here is the link to the pocket guide:

All the very best for the Prize!

Warm regards,