Meet the Man Bringing the Agricultural Tech Boom to Appalachia

Why Jonathan Webb returned to Kentucky to revolutionize agriculture.

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Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

Modern Pioneers

Welcome to Modern Pioneers, a profile series brought to you by Lifewire and UScellular, in which we spotlight innovators who are forging their own paths in the tech world. Jonathan Webb, who’s bringing the agricultural tech revolution to Kentucky, is our next Modern Pioneer.

When thinking about the technology of the future, it can be easy to picture flying cars and robot butlers. You might imagine those inventions being dreamed up in gleaming New York City skyscrapers or corporate campuses in Silicon Valley. But something even more important is happening on farms throughout Kentucky. AppHarvest is answering the question of how to sustainably feed an ever-growing population—and revitalizing its surrounding community in the process.

Jonathan Webb, the founder and CEO of AppHarvest and a Kentucky native, is proving that tech innovation can happen anywhere, not just big cities. It’s also an opportunity to make up for the jobs that have left the state as the coal industry declines. That’s not to say it was an entirely altruistic act. From the outset, Webb realized that the arrangement was mutually beneficial. 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“The best thing we did was to start here because the community supported us,” Webb says. “The return on that investment isn’t something you can show in an Excel file model. What do you get out of your city council calling the governor's office, when your mayor puts together community meetings for you?”

If you’re wondering why there would be so much energy and community support for a new farm, you should know that AppHarvest’s flagship facility in Morehead, Kentucky isn’t your average homestead. The 60-acre indoor farm is on the cutting-edge of the technological revolution currently shaking up the agriculture industry. At the farm they use artificial intelligence, robotics and hybrid LED lighting to maximize and accurately predict their yield of tomatoes. But Webb knows that technology should supplement, not substitute, nature. 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“One thing we're doing fundamentally, is trying to put nature first and have technology drive from behind,” Webb explains. “Two free inputs the planet Earth gives us are sunlight and rainwater. We capture all that sunlight through a glass roof, and we only use LED lights when the sunlight does not give the plant the amount of light it needs. We also run completely on recycled rainwater. We collect all that water on our roof, filter it only with sand and UV and pump it back into the facility.”

By growing vegetables in a controlled environment, they’re also able to eliminate the need for pesticides. Instead, they use beneficial insects as a natural solution, along with hundreds of sensors and cameras to monitor plants and identify pests before they can become an issue. This balance of nature and technology can result in a tomato yield 30 times greater than that of a traditional outdoor farm. So it’s no wonder that Webb is bringing the same approach to the new indoor farms AppHarvest is building, in which they are expanding their profile of foods to include leafy greens. It’s a lot to supervise, so it’s proven especially important for Webb to stay connected with his team at all times. 

“When I'm out in the field or running around on a construction site, being able to connect with people in real time is critically important.” 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

A reliable cell network is essential for anyone running a business. So it’s a good thing that networks like UScellular are committed to providing Kentucky with dependable cell service. People in big cities or on the coast might take it for granted, but UScellular is making it possible for people outside of those dense population centers to stay connected. 

Even with improved cell networks, there are still obstacles when starting a business away from the coasts. “80% of venture capital in the U.S. goes to San Francisco, New York City or Boston,” Webb says. “The rest of the country fights for 20% of the other venture capital.”

That reality is part of the reason why Webb had to move to New York City and Washington, D.C. following his graduation from the University of Kentucky. For someone starting a career in sustainable energy, the opportunities were on the coasts. But that didn’t stop him from hoping to return home someday. 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“I grew up here, have family here and always wanted to live here. But I didn't think that was going to be possible because of all the job concentration in very few cities.” 

With AppHarvest, he created his own opportunity to come back to Kentucky. Up to that point, he worked with the Department of Defense on large solar projects, helping to move the military towards using more renewable energy. At first glance, this wouldn’t appear to position Webb as an obvious candidate to make a splash in agricultural tech (or AgTech, as it’s known within the industry). To Webb’s credit, he’s always seen a clear connection. 

“Food is just another form of energy. We're powering the human body. Solar and wind, we were trying to build stuff, and then produce an electron at the lowest possible price. Now we're trying to create food for the human body at the lowest possible price.”

Webb sees agriculture as the third wave of sustainable infrastructure. In the last couple of decades, there have been massive leaps forward in solar and wind farms (renewable energy as the first wave) and electric vehicles (clean transportation as the second wave). Now, Webb thinks, it’s time for the agriculture industry to make a similar jump. And why shouldn’t that start in Kentucky? 

From the flagship farm in Morehead, Kentucky, you can reach 70% of the United States’ population within a day’s truck drive. This allows AppHarvest to get people their produce faster, which reduces waste and the amount of fuel used in the process. It was no accident that AppHarvest started with tomatoes, since it’s a crop in which the inefficiency of the old system is particularly egregious. 

“Four billion pounds of tomatoes are imported annually from Mexico,” Webb says. “It does not make sense to truck a fruit or vegetable 2,000 miles. The USDA has said that roughly 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables go to waste, and that's largely due to transportation. We're focused on bringing production as close to markets as possible.” 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

Whether the trucks are going to Iowa or Florida, the tomatoes will get there within a day. The drivers will never have to wait at customs or lose the coverage of their cell network (if they’re covered by UScellular), meaning that they can deal with any issues that come up in real time. 

Kentucky also has the right conditions to grow fresh vegetables, even as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. Raising temperatures have increased rainfall in Kentucky, which allows AppHarvest to run entirely on recycled rainfall while more traditional farms out west experience lengthy and severe droughts. 

The other natural resource in abundant supply is the passion of the people in the state. Kentucky’s economy might be in the middle of a radical transformation, but the attitude of Kentuckians hasn’t changed since Webb grew up there. “It's the same place, the same people, the same spirit, the same can-do work ethic, just a totally different viewpoint on where the future's going.”

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

The effect AppHarvest is having in its community is already noticeable, as keeping a 60-acre indoor farm running has provided hundreds of Kentuckians with good jobs. But he’s also working with the local schools to show kids all the ways in which they can get involved in agriculture. 

“Think of a shipping container where you can grow leafy greens, which you can operate with an iPhone and an iPad, LED lights, software. We're showing freshmen and sophomores in high school that this is farming, not riding a tractor and being out in a field all day.”

The process of passing down knowledge to the next generation is not only key to community building, but also in the process of developing and refining sustainable practices. This is yet another example of Webb’s refreshing attitude as a CEO, going past what might appear in a balance sheet and thinking about long-term ways to benefit his community, as well as the planet. 

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“Some of those kids, maybe they'll eventually come work for us, maybe they'll go start their own company, and we'll work with them in some other capacity. But making early investments into education and not seeing any results for five or 10 years—it’s a model you don't typically see in the U.S.” 

One can hope that more businesses start to take a similar approach. Many, especially in the tech world, are already following AppHarvest’s lead in moving away from the coasts. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have become more open to moving away from the traditional hubs of power and innovation. Webb, who started AppHarvest long before COVID, proved prescient in choosing to base his business in a place he jokingly refers to as flyover country.  

Jonathan Webb

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“We have definitely seen the tailwinds of the resurgence of middle America, with attracting talent and getting people to move here from San Francisco,” Webb says. “Somebody just dropped out of Harvard Business School and moved from Boston to Kentucky to join AppHarvest.”

The pandemic obviously sped up this process. But, it was already happening given the way that the internet and reliable wireless like UScellular’s powerful 5G network have allowed people to stay connected without being in the same room, or even the same city or country. Unlike Webb, many of the kids learning about ag tech won’t feel any need to leave middle America to get their careers started. 

“You don't have to build the next great idea in a high-rise office tower...We built this company out of trailers and RVs using laptops and iPhones.

Those might not seem like the tools of a conventional farm. But Jonathan Webb and AppHarvest are proof that you can’t revolutionize an industry without upending a few conventions. 

Does Jonathan Webb and AppHarvest have you curious to see more examples of creative and passionate people innovating away from the coasts? Check out previous installments of Modern Pioneers, presented by Lifewire and UScellular. 

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