*Originally published in the Appalachian News-Express*
Photo by Buddy Forbes
By Buddy Forbes
“Can people speak up for where they get their food from? Because if you do, things will change.”
That was the topic of conversation when founder and CEO of AppHarvest Jonathan Webb posed the question during an AppHarvest Q&A at Roasted Coffee and Cafe Monday afternoon.
AppHarvest is an agricultural startup that is looking to build a high-tech greenhouse on a reclaimed mine in Pikeville. The greenhouse will be a factory for high-tech agriculture and is slated to create around 140 jobs for Eastern Kentuckians.
“What we’re working on is high-tech agriculture. We want to take the open-field agriculture down in Mexico, take the large greenhouse community up in Canada and bring it down into central Appalachia,” said Webb.
According to Webb, the company has received a lot of support from the local community, but is still waiting to hear from the environmental community and state leaders, who could have a big hand in making this company a success.
“I think what we’re doing here is laying the groundwork to get the word out, and hopefully get the environmental community in here, show them we’re in business and start talking products,” said Webb
The startup has already managed to get the support of some coal-minded companies.
“Desperation drives innovation,” said Founder of Edelen Stretegic Ventures Adam Edelen. “As you can imagine, the narrative of a coal company, willing to partner with a renewable energy firm, to do a solar installation on a mountaintop removal sight, that puts out-of-work miners back to work — everybody wanted to be part of it.”
Edelen said it’s time to bring some of those out-of-work miners into the winners’ circle.
“I think it’s important because, in this community, the people who live here fueled the industrial development of this country for the last hundred years. So, if you believe that the central challenge of our time is whether or not to expand the winners’ circle … you’ve got to expand opportunity to the forgotten places,” said Edelen.
Edelen said this is the time and place to promote a business venture like AppHarvest, stressing the opportunity it provides for the local and surrounding communities.
“Our project is an enormous opportunity to show that renewable energy’s winners’ circle is large enough to include people who have made their living in the old energy economy,” said Edelen. “Coal miners don’t want anything other than the opportunity to work. That’s it. They’re the best-trained workers in the world. These are electricians and earth-movers and welders. These are people who know how to solve problems and they deserve an opportunity.”
According to Edelen, the idea that the environmental community and the coal company have to be in opposition is no longer one that should be accepted.
“I would say it’s a put up or shut up moment for those who have been agitating for environmental policies that have been difficult on the economy. I think that’s yesterday’s conversation,” said Edelen. “I think what tomorrow’s conversation is about is how we create and expand a winners’ circle to those who have absolutely been left out.”
Edelen said he believes those forgotten people are ready to make a statement.
“I think, if the last election had one impact, it woke up a lot of the financial and political leads on the coast that there are people in regular America who feel left out. I think for those who believe that our challenge is to expand the winners’ circle, Pikeville, Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky is ground zero,” added Edelen.
The startup has already gained national attention from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which Edelen says is due to the ideas of the project and the ever-shifting National imagination.
“This is our Appalachian moment. Poverty captures the National imagination fleetingly in this country. We are living in a time and place where Appalachia is very hot,” said Edelen. “We need to figure out something … for Appalachia, that gives people a chance and diversifies the economy. And it’s an all-of-the-above solution. There will always be a place for coal, but there’s gonna have to be a place for renewable energy.”
The opportunity for out-of-work miners and the struggling economy is only a small part of the fruitfulness of AppHarvest. According to G&V Greenhouse Solutions representative Julie Gilbert, the greenhouse idea seems like a small thing, but is much more than a place to grow vegetables. Gilbert said the University of Pikeville would benefit from the locality of a high-tech greenhouse.
The greenhouse could provide a teaching method that no other universities around the region can provide, according to Gilbert.
“You’ll produce growers,” Gilbert said. “Purdue says they have a high-tech green house. They don’t. I know high-tech.”
The greenhouse is planned for a 60-acre site, with a two million square-foot blueprint. The facility will grow fresh vegetables year-round, with a focus on snacking tomatoes and bell peppers. One high-tech factor can be found in the above-ground, hydroponic growing systems with computerized monitoring throughout the facility. To keep things more tech-centered and modern, the place will be wired with a staff-created playlist and there will be fresh smoothies in the cafeteria.
“I really hope that investors come to the table and get here and realize this is the future. This is the future and it’s coming whether they want it or not,” said Gilbert.
The time-frame in which the future comes to the mountains is still in the air, as AppHarvest says they’re waiting for some interest from state leaders and economic developers. While the wait is on, locals are reeling with excitement about the opportunities this facility could create.
The City of Pikeville’s Administrator of Economic Development Elizabeth Thompson and Director of Economic Development Sean Cochran, Founder and CEO of SOAR Jared Arnett and University of Pikeville’s President Burton Webb and Provost Lori Werth were some of the local minds in attendance during Monday’s session.
“The reality is that it’s going to depend on us. At the end of the day, every plan before ours has been a plan of Frankfort or a plan of D.C. that says, ‘Here’s how you fix Appalachia.’ And this plan says, here’s how we fix ourselves,” said Arnett. “You do it two ways. One: you bring new money into the region, two: you keep money within the region that normally leaves it. This accomplishes that.”
However, according to Webb, for the local economy to sign on, larger entities from the state have to show their support and help this project be the infrastructure AppHarvest says it can become.
“Anybody care about Eastern Kentucky? If they do, give me a phone call,” said Webb.