Procore set out to find the companies, projects and individuals that stood out for their bold achievements in construction. Among the 24 outstanding finalists selected, eight were named winners of the 2021 Groundbreaker Awards. This is the final article in an eight-part series spotlighting each winner.
As the American coal industry has slipped into decline, no region has been more affected than Appalachia. When unemployment levels rose, much of the area plunged into economic uncertainty. AppHarvest Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb, a solar industry veteran, knew he had to do something to help his hometown community.
Drawing inspiration from a National Geographic article he read on sustainable indoor farming in the Netherlands, Webb traveled with friends to Holland in 2015 to see the farms for himself. Witnessing the possibilities, he brought the idea home to Eastern Kentucky, and AppHarvest was born two years later.
“Jonathan had a vision to bring that technology to Kentucky to allow us to find a way forward as a region. For many decades, we powered the country, and now we see ourselves as having the capacity to feed the country,” said Amy Samples, AppHarvest’s VP of Community Outreach.
Since then, AppHarvest has made a name for itself. The company has built some of the world’s largest indoor farms right in Appalachia, including its flagship 60-acre facility in Morehead, Kentucky. From this location, the company packs and ships non-GMO tomatoes all over the country, counting more than two dozen grocery giants, such as Walmart, Kroger, Meijer, and Publix among its customers. The company already has four more facilities in the works.
To date, AppHarvest has brought more than $300 million in capital investment to the region and intends to triple that figure by 2025.
AppHarvest was established as a public benefit corporation and B Corp. Therefore, although the company is for-profit and publicly traded, it must bake social and environmental considerations into its business model, and it takes that requirement seriously. This has taken the form of investing in education and training programs with local school districts and paying employees a living wage that far exceeds Kentucky’s $7.25 minimum wage.
Sustainability and being good environmental stewards are also core to AppHarvest’s mission. The company nurtures more than 170,000 indoor tomato plants with rainwater from the main facility’s 10-acre retention pond, thus allowing them to operate with 90% less water than traditional agriculture methods. The water is then filtered through sand, bombarded with UV light, and combined with a nutrient solution before being fed to the plants, grown entirely without soil.
AppHarvest also uses integrated pest management (IPM), meaning the company doesn’t rely on chemical pesticides to grow its food, which is the norm for most imported tomatoes.
“I would love in 10 years for this to be commonplace. For everyone to say, ‘wow, this is really the way to do this.’ It’s so much more efficient, 30 times more production per acre than traditional farming. It really is reinventing the word ‘farming,’” said Collin Walters, AppHarvest’s Construction Program Manager.
Establishing Appalachia as an AgTech hub to bring prosperity and investment to this part of the country is one of AppHarvest’s most important values. Returning to where it all started, AppHarvest last year announced a strategic partnership with the Netherlands, bringing together more than a dozen organizations, including colleges, AgTech research institutions, and the governments of both the Netherlands and Kentucky. The partnership seeks to commit to the creation of America’s AgTech capital in Appalachia.
“We do it because we know we are talented as a region. We want to redefine the way the world sees us because we have something to offer. Especially in our region that has this long history of being stereotyped, it’s just so important,” said Samples.
Community Team in Action
The company has added more than 500 new jobs to the region, all paying living wages and offering comprehensive, no-cost benefits. AppHarvest has also broadened its support to the greater local community, creating a series of programs including second-chance employment opportunities, educational outreach for nontraditional students, and direct relief efforts.
Through efforts led by AppHarvest’s Community Team, the company has launched a series of educational initiatives, partnering with local school districts to give students a hands-on lesson in food sourcing, nutrition, and sustainable farming. Through its unique collaboration with Eastern Kentucky schools, AppHarvest helped incorporate a robust AgTech curriculum into existing agriculture classrooms across the region.
In support of these programs, the company has supplied local high schools with high-tech indoor farms made from repurposed 40-foot shipping containers, allowing students to grow their own food and learn more about their food provenance. As of September, AppHarvest has provided schools with six such container farms, with even more in the works.
The container farms have been able to give back to the community in their own right, donating hundreds of pounds of produce to local food pantries. When the area was hit with a severe ice storm, AppHarvest showed their thanks to road crews and first responders with a gift of 2,000 pounds of tomatoes.
Late last year, the company launched its Grow Green Eat Green project with field representatives from Save The Children, providing 1,600 fourth-grade students the chance to build a hydroponic growing system to grow their own lettuce.
As the newcomers erecting massive indoor farms in a well-established region, AppHarvest has been very conscious of being good neighbors to the nearby population. After all, many of them have lived in the area for generations. Procore helped the company minimize any disruptions to the surrounding community during construction.
Leveraging Procore’s Observation, Inspection, and Task tools, the construction management team was able to unleash the full firepower of Procore to ensure they effectively identified any risks. This way, they were able to stay on top of any issues that could negatively impact the health and safety of its neighbors.
Thanks to Procore’s immediate notification and accountability features, AppHarvest’s construction team was able to work quickly to deploy solutions and preventative measures with the push of a button.
“When loose gravel makes its way out onto the roadway, we can remove the debris before the local motorcycle club goes on their afternoon ride. When dust blows into the baseball diamond next door, we can water down the road so the fans can watch the game-winning home run in awe. And if we identify quality issues with the construction of our greenhouses, we can remedy them immediately, ensuring we deliver the highest quality product to produce stands,” said Emily Laytham, AppHarvest Communications Strategist.
With the world expected to need between 50% and 70% more food by 2050, the importance of sustainability in agriculture has never been greater. AppHarvest has dedicated itself to revitalizing its home region, which has been battered by economic uncertainty and job losses, reinventing it as the great American capital of sustainable agriculture.
“The enormous demands of our society for food in the not too distant future, probably within all of our lifetimes, will require a new approach to increase food production,” Samples said. “This is an issue we discuss with our community members because this is a problem that is so big that we need to face it instead of turning away from it.”