Is Indoor Farming The Future of Appalachia?
On an abandoned mine near a small town in Kentucky, one company will soon be growing millions of pounds of tomatoes.
Webb is founder and CEO of AppHarvest, a company currently constructing a 1.8 million square-foot indoor farm near the town of Pikeville, in Kentucky's struggling Southeast. Mining jobs, once the lifeblood of the region, have been drying up for decades—could farming be the answer? And while 600 jobs—the number the company expects to create and sustain—pales in comparison to the more than 10,000 jobs lost in this rural, sparsely populated region over the past decade, it's certainly a start.
Tomatoes will be the stock in trade; AppHarvest will partner with the leading greenhouse grower in North America, SUNSET Produce, to get the job done in five, high-tech greenhouses which will amount to a total of 160 acres of indoor farm, all under glass.
While the project has the potential to do good things for the community (starting with increased access to fresh produce during the off-season), that's not the sole reason AppHarvest is here—Central Appalachia, while often perceived as an isolated place, is actually a relatively strategic location, located within a day's drive of a majority of the population (nearly 70 percent) in the United States. This makes growing produce here a smart and cost-effective alternative to importing from other places. (Labor in Mexico, for example, is cheaper, but the cost of getting the produce to market is lower, not to mention the fact that it won't take very long to get it there.)
If all goes to plan, Webb is optimistic that the Pikeville project could be the first of many operations within the region; it's certainly going to get a great deal of attention, once the first site is completed—in just this one location, AppHarvest estimates that they'll be able to produce so many tomatoes, it could actually put a dent (small, but not insignificant) in the import market.