AppHarvest releases first tomato harvest to mass retail: 'We plan on growing just about all fruit and vegetables in a controlled environment'

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo Credit: AppHarvest
Photo Credit: AppHarvest

Related tags: AppHarvest, vertical farming, hydroponics

AppHarvest -- an indoor vertical farming ag tech company based in Morehead, Kentucky -- is shipping out its first harvest of beefsteak tomatoes to national and regional grocery store chains including Kroger, Publix, Walmart, Food City, and Meijer.

Located in the heart of Appalachia with nearly 3 million square feet of vertical growing space (roughly twice the size of Amazon's largest facility, said founder and CEO of AppHarvest​ Jonathan Webb), AppHarvest has mega-scale ambitions to make hydroponic, vertically-grown produce the norm in agriculture.

"Our thesis is that most all fruit and vegetable production at scale, globally is going to be grown in a controlled environment,"​ Webb said during a virtual press conference announcing its first completed harvest of beefsteak tomatoes. 

According to Webb, the environmental burden of conventional agriculture is far from sustainable (AppHarvest estimates that in 50 to 60 years soil will be depleted of its essential nutrients to grow quality produce), and sooner or later the industry will reach a tipping point.

"We plan on, when all is said is done, growing just about all fruit and vegetables in a controlled environment – that’s where big agriculture as a whole is going,"​ he said. 

AppHarvest’s high-tech indoor farms are designed to use 90% less water (100% rainwater) with yields that are up to 30 times higher compared to traditional open-field agriculture on the same amount of land. Once fully ramped up, AppHarvest’s Morehead facility alone is expected to produce about 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually -- and harvested daily -- from about 720,000 tomato plants, a mix of Beefsteak and “Tomatoes on the Vine.​”

AppHarvest has two more facilities under construction—a similar 60-plus acre facility outside Richmond, Kentucky, and a 15-acre facility to grow leafy greens in Berea, Kentucky. AppHarvest also is planning for more facilities across Kentucky and Central Appalachia, with the goal of 12 total farms by the end of 2025.

AppHarvestfacility

'We're ready to be a public company'

There are plenty of other companies in the hydroponic, vertical agriculture space that have attracted an significant amount of investment in recent years and are scaling their growing and production facilities accordingly, acknowledged Webb. 

However, AppHarvest's plans to become a publicly-traded company through a merger with Novus Capital later this year will provide the firm with the scale and platform it needs to make an even greater impact in redirecting the future of modern agriculture. 

davidlee
David Lee, president of AppHarvest

"The concept of going public allows our consumer to have full visibility," ​said Webb. "We think that it’s incredibly important that if we’re going to move agriculture forward and food forward we need to be fully transparent with the consumer and there’s no better way to force transparency than with the public process."

To help navigate the waters of becoming a publicly-traded company, AppHarvest has tapped David Lee, Impossible Foods CFO, as president (last year, Lee joined AppHarvest's board along with Martha Stewart).

"There was a perfect fit in the ability to educate long-term, sophisticated investors on how capitalism could be used for good and how a company could become financially self reliant and provide a great return to investors,"​ said Lee. 

"In the opportunity to be listed publicly we’ll have 10x more capital and we have the ability to attract the very best of those public investors. 

"We are ready to be a public company,"​ said Lee. "Part of what I want to help the team with is to execute well with the rigor of being public. I think this is the future for smart, savvy investors."

National brand ambitions

With national distribution underway, AppHarvest has ambitions to become a nationally-recognized produce brand -- something few produce companies besides traditional field-grown brands which command significantly more market share have been able to achieve. 

"Let’s talk about brands and let’s be honest. Brands are built on trust,"​ said Lee. "The opportunity we have is to build a better food and ag company that not just has better product but treats employees better and is just better fundamentally."

Its business model provides full healthcare coverage (including paying full healthcare premiums) for employees, added Webb.

"Every single person helping to put food on our table should have a living wage and full healthcare. We’ve been very fortunate that our board and investors have allowed us to create this model that frankly compress our margins just a little but still make the investor a good return. To us, it’s an investment in our workforce long term," ​said Webb.

At retail, Webb told consumers to look for the 'green hills' AppHarvest logo. "We hope those hills are like every other logo you look for as a consumer," ​he said. 

AppHarvesttomatoes
Customers can shop for AppHarvest’s tomatoes in the produce aisle in packaging co-branded with Sunset Grown, its distributor, at a price comparable to standard tomatoes, said the company. 

Food and cooking icon, Martha Stewart, who joined the AppHarvest board in August 2020, said that part of creating a great brand that consumers reach for and recognize will also require an extension into prepared foods. 

"I hope that enough product is grown that we can turn some of it into other foods. For example, a really good tomato sauce with these tomatoes – and soups also. We need to be making our prepared foods with this kind of produce as well,"​ said Stewart who has started to put together her own set of recipes using AppaHarvest tomatoes such as 

"The customer really does desire healthy, organically-grown, sustainably-grown foodstuffs. I see that and hear it every single day from all of our readers and our viewers."

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