Tag: labor

Jonathan Webb CEO AppHarvest Indoor Ag-Con 2022 Keynote

Farm of the Future: Q&A With AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb

Indoor Ag-Con is pleased to announce that AppHarvest CEO & Founder Jonathan Webb is joining our CEO Keynote line-up for the February 28-March 1, 2022 edition at Caesars Forum, Las Vegas.  His presentation, “How Tech In Farming Can Build A Resilient Food System,” will be on Monday, February 28,  from 11 — 11:50 am.

From building an AgTech hub in Central Appalachia to launching the “Fight the Food Fight” campaign to investing in and supporting high school AgTech education, learn more about how Jonathan and the AppHarvest team are working to solve today’s food and agriculture challenges in this month’s CEO Q&A.

It’s your home state, what are the conditions– efficiencies of scale, workforce, available water and other benefits that make Kentucky and Appalachia an ideal location for AppHarvest?

AppHarvest Kentucky is my home state and I do love it. But, it also makes sense strategically to build an AgTech hub in Central Appalachia for a few reasons:

  • Kentucky’s climate is well-suited for the industry. We grow using 100% rainwater and climate change is making the region wetter. In fact, the past decade has seen the most rainfall in Kentucky history with three of those years being the wettest on record. If you’re growing products that are up to 95% water like fruits and vegetables, you need to be where water is available.
  • The strategic location of our flagship farm in Morehead, Ky., allows AppHarvest to provide sustainable produce to up to 70% of the United States population within a day’s drive.This approach gets food closer to where it’s consumed, shortens transportation time significantly and reduces diesel use by as much as 80%.
  • Labor is another reason. With industries such as coal and tobacco going away, the region needs more jobs for a skilled workforce, and we are able to tap into that labor pool for our high-tech farms.

What historic milestones are comparable to what AppHarvest is attempting with the Farm of the Future? Automotive assembly line? 1960s space race? Why?

At AppHarvest, we believe that controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is the third wave of sustainable infrastructure. In my experience working on major solar projects with the U.S. Department of Defense, the first wave was 20 years ago with renewable energy. The second wave came 10 years later when Tesla made electric vehicles popular in the mainstream. Now, we’re in the third wave and it’s CEA using a combination of nature supported by technology to produce a lot more food with fewer resources. We’re using artificial intelligence and robotics to make data-driven decisions to farm more efficiently and better predict crop yield.

What was the rationale behind the “Fight the Food Fight” campaign and how are sales going with your “Food Fight“ salsa?

AppHarvest fight The Food Fight CampaignChange begins with education. We recognized the need for a consumer movement to encourage folks to learn where their food comes from and understand that their purchases matter. The Fight the Food Fight campaign is a call to action that asks consumers to join us in creating a more resilient food system designed for the long-term wellbeing of people and planet by supporting products that promote sustainable farm operations and good, living-wage jobs in agriculture.

In early November 2021, we introduced our first product tied to the campaign, called the Food Fight Salsa. The main ingredient is AppHarvest tomatoes and all other ingredients are U.S.-grown. The salsa sold out within a few weeks and is back in stock on our direct-to-consumer website at shop.appharvest.com. We ask you to Fight the Food Fight with us!

Can you share a little about what AppHarvest is doing on the AgTech education front to help train the next generation of farmers, specifically with regard to your collaboration with Eastern Kentucky High Schools.

AppHarvest High School AgTech EducationAs we work to build a hub of sustainable agriculture in Central Appalachia, we know we need to create an AgTech ecosystem with good education at all levels. That’s why we are investing in the next generation of farmers and futurists by supporting high school AgTech education. We have launched seven container farms since the start of our program, with a goal to have 20 across Central Appalachia to serve as a model across the U.S.

Jonathan Webb Container Launch App HarvestThese free-standing training facilities are made from shipping containers retrofitted with the latest sustainable agriculture technology, including energy-efficient LED grow lights and a closed-loop irrigation system that teaches students how to use up to 90% less water and grow up to 30 times more food in the same amount of space compared to traditional open-field agriculture. One container farm classroom can produce the equivalent of three to five acres of traditional agriculture, and the technology in each unit is a good example of what AppHarvest employees use every day on a larger scale.

Where do you see AppHarvest 5 or 10 years from now – what’s your ultimate goal?

The world’s food and agriculture problems are not going to be solved in the short-term. The AppHarvest team sees our journey to create a resilient food system taking decades. We’re at the beginning and working hard to create shareholder value now that will still be there in decades two and three. We want to help build a sustainable organization that will be able to go toe-to-toe with the larger incumbents globally.

One way we’re doing this is by growing to scale. In addition to our 60-acre high-tech farm in Morehead, which can produce an estimated 40 million pounds of tomatoes per year, we are expanding our farm network to include three more farms expected to be operational by the end of 2022. The 15-acre Berea, Ky., leafy green facility and the 60-acre Richmond, Ky., tomato facility are both approximately 60% complete, and the 30-acre Somerset, Ky., berry facility is more than 40% complete. A fifth farm, the 10-acre Morehead North leafy green facility has an expected 2023 delivery. The company is working toward a longer-term goal of up to 12 farms by 2025.

AppHarvest isn’t going to save agriculture on its own. We know that a number of large companies will be working to solve our food and agriculture problems, and we intend to be one of them.

Learn more about AppHarvest by visiting their website — www.appharvest.com —  and register today to join us for the Indoor Ag-Con to hear Jonathan’s keynote address!

Q & A With Jake Counne, Founder, Wilder Fields

Jake Counne Wilder Farms Q and A With Indoor Ag-Con
Jake Counne, founder, Wilder Fields shares greens with Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush. Pictured announcing Wilder Fields’ commitment to build and operate a full-scale commercial vertical farm in a former Super Target store in Calumet City, Ill.

 

When Jake Counne established Backyard Fresh Farms as an incubator in 2016, he knew that most large-scale vertical farming operations were large-scale financial disappointments.

So rather than attempting to patch up the prevailing model, he and his team chose to build something new from the ground up. “Other start-ups had tried scaling their operations with antiquated greenhouse practices,” he says. “We realized that to solve the massive labor and energy problems that persist with indoor vertical farming. We needed to look to other industries that had mastered how to scale.”

That vision, and several years of persistent innovation, came to fruition in 2019 when Counne announced he would transplant the successful pilot farm—now renamed Wilder Fields—into a full-scale commercial vertical farm. It is currently under construction in an abandoned Super Target store, with an uninterrupted expanse of three acres under its roof in Calumet City, just outside Chicago.

Wilder Fields is designed to supply supermarkets and restaurants in the Chicago metro trade area,. It is scheduled to sell its first produce in the spring of 2021. It will  provide fresh produce to those living in nearby food deserts in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.  In this  Q & A with Jake Counne, Indoor Ag-Con will share more Jake’s vision and plans for the  future.

According to an Artemis survey, only 27 percent of indoor vertical farms are profitable despite attracting $2.23 billion in investments in 2018. Why do you think a small start-up like Wilder Fields can succeed where so many have yet to earn a profit?

We started four years ago by investing our own resources. We were also working on a very limited scale in a small incubator space. I think those constraints pushed us to be more discerning about what we should tackle first. In that time, we developed an array of proprietary software and hardware, many of which have patents pending. And we refined a new paradigm for vertical farming, moving from the greenhouse model to lean manufacturing.

We also had the good fortune of starting up just as many first-wave indoor farms were closing down. So we looked at those case studies to understand what went wrong. And, what they could have done differently—what was needed to succeed. In fact, the founder of one of those first-wave farms now serves on our advisory board and really helped us identify the right blend of automation and labor.

With traditional vertical farming, the bigger you get, the more your labor costs increase. It seemed to us that the first generation of large-scale commercial vertical farms thought they could simply scale-up labor as they grew.

But we realized that operational excellence and efficiencies are essential to marry growth and profitability. It’s very hard to control a wide variety of factors using a 100 percent human workforce; for the most part, our industry has realized we need to recalibrate and find ways to automate.

Wilder Fields Super Target Location_Indoor Ag-Con Q and A
This 135 thousand square foot former Super Target store in Calumet City, Ill. will soon be transformed into one of the world’s largest vertical farms. This former retail space will house 24 clean rooms with the capacity to produce 25 million leafy green plants each year.

 

So automation solves the problem? It’s not as simple as that.

Now the problem that the pendulum has swung a little too far in the other direction. The  industry is almost hyper-focused on automation—as if automation is the answer to all of vertical farming’s problems. It’s not. Remember when Elon Musk tried using too much automation to produce the Model 3? I believe he called his big mistake “excessive automation” and concluded that humans are underrated.

We believe well-run vertical farms, and the most profitable ones, will achieve the right balance of human labor and automation. And that’s been our laser-focused goal from day one—to bring down labor costs in an intelligent way, in order to make vertical farming economically sustainable.

We also reduced costs by repurposing an existing structure rather than building a new one. We located a vacant, 135,000-square-foot Super Target in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City. What better way to farm sustainably than to build our farm in a sustainable way? Along with City leaders, we think we can help revitalize the depressed retail corridor where it is located.

To my knowledge, converting a big box space to an indoor vertical farm has never been done before. So we also are creating a blueprint for how to impart new life to empty, expansive buildings.

We also will provide opportunities for upwardly mobile jobs and environmentally sound innovations, and produce food that promotes community health.

Vertical farming is a fairly new development. How does it fit into the history of modern agriculture?

I make an analogy with the automobile industry. Field agriculture is sort of like the combustion engine. It came first and was easy to scale up, making it available to  more and more people. There were obvious downsides to it, but soon the whole world was using the combustion engine, so we kept churning them out.

But as the detrimental effects began to accumulate, we started asking ourselves how to reduce the negative impact. That’s when the auto industry came up with hybrid cars—they’re the greenhouses in this analogy—and while they were certainly a less bad solution, they weren’t really the solution.

And now we have the fully electric car and it has started outperforming combustion engines on many different levels—just as indoor vertical farming is now beginning to outperform field agriculture

Today’s business mantra holds that the more you automate, the more efficient you become. So why is vertical farming any different?

There are certain efficiencies that don’t require specialized robotics, especially if these tasks can be accomplished in other ways that sustain quality and reduce costs. For example, instead of our workers going among the plants to tend them, the plants come to the workers in assembly-line fashion that requires fewer harvesters. So it’s always a balance between the investment in specialized machinery and the cost of the labor that it will eliminate.

And while there’s definitely room for automation, it doesn’t always require new specialized robotics. In our industry, plenty of mature automation already exists that can be used to good effect, such as automated transplanting and automated seeding: both employ proven, decades-old technology.

So when I see some other start-ups trying to reinvent these processes, it’s hard to understand. They design and build new, expensive equipment—something possible with an unlimited budget—but in fact, a more affordable, simple solution already is available.

Start-up costs are notoriously difficult to finance. How were you able to get off the ground? What advice would you have for others in the industry?

There’s no easy way to bootstrap from a small start-up to a large scale without that big infusion of capital. You’ve got to decide early on if you should try to secure venture capital from institutional folks or search out more, smaller checks from friends and family and accredited investors.

As I see it, venture capitalists look to the founders’ background and education more than a business model that needs to be tested. If you don’t have that pedigree out of the gate, it’s an uphill battle.

We chose to take a different path, one that has proven successful for me in the past.  It’s one where  I led a group of investors who acquired overlooked residential properties on Chicago’s South Side.  We brought stability to neighborhoods and now manage a large portfolio of quality rental properties. There was no white paper when we embarked on that venture, but we shared a vision for revitalizing good housing stock.

I also tell people to explore equipment financing, which thanks to the cannabis industry has opened up more and more. It’s definitely possible to finance some of this equipment. That seems to be a good route as well.

How will vertical farming impact the types of the crops you grow?

Wilder Fields grows and will continue to grow a wonderful variety of leafy greens. Many will be new to people because they can’t be efficiently raised in a field. So we are building our product line around flavor and texture as opposed to supply-chain hardiness.

But remember, the indoor vertical farming industry is in its very early days. Soon we will have a whole new frontier of applications and crops to grow. Especially now that certain companies are offering indoor-specific seeds. We’ve seen this movie before. When greenhouse-style vertical farms first came on the scene, they used seeds that were really bred for the field. They were doing okay. But, as soon as seeds were bred specifically for that greenhouse environment, yield and quality shot through the roof.

Now that we’re on the cusp of having specialized seeds bred specifically for our purposes, I think we’re going to see that same leap in yield and quality as well.

Of course, your initial planning could not have factored in a global pandemic and ailing economy. How have the ramifications of COVID-19 affected Wilder Fields, and your industry at large?

This is a time for us to champion the benefits of indoor agriculture because vertical farming is doing really well. Any farms primarily serving restaurants obviously had a problem. Companies that pivoted away from restaurants have been able to reach consumers more than ever. They’re capitalizing on their indoor-grown—and therefore much cleaner—product.

Supermarkets are our primary market. With people cooking more at home and looking for fresher and healthier choices, they’re eating more leafy greens.  This is another positive phenomenon.

The success of your model relies heavily on your proprietary technology. Do you have any plans to eventually license your innovations—to make them available to others, for a fee?

That’s a question we’ve been asked a lot, not only from our industry but also from the cannabis industry. We may revisit that opportunity in the future, but it’s not something we’re immediately considering.

Here’s why. When I first entered the industry in 2016, I noticed there were so many consultants. Many people were licensing technology, but none of them were actually using that technology to grow leafy greens at scale. They’re like the folks who sell the pickaxes and the shovels instead of mining the gold.

My perspective is, “You’ve got to venture into the mine to know what sort of shovel and pickaxe you need”; in other words, that’s how to understand what models to create for logistics and ergonomics and what tools are needed to make them work. I did not want our company to be one of those that are just sort of camping outside the mine and hawking its wares.

I think the only way we can  develop a solution that’s worth its weight is operating our own technology and equipment at scale. And I haven’t seen anybody do that yet. Is it possible that we license our technology somewhere down the road once we’ve actually proven it out at scale? Maybe; but it’s not part of our business model right now.

So, along those lines, when will Wilder Fields deliver your first produce—grown in your first full-scale commercial vertical farm—to grocers in metro Chicago?

We have committed to the end of the first quarter of next year: March, 2021.   In addition to this Indoor Ag-Con Q & A with Jake Counne, you can  learn more about Wilder Fields visit the company website

The Underutilized Labor Market For Controlled Environment Agriculture | CEA

Recently, Lou Driever, grower for The Abilities Connection (TAC), a 501(c)3 that provides vocational rehabilitation for adults with developmental disabilities,  reached out to us regarding the labor market for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).  He wanted to share what his organization and others are doing to help provide local greenhouse / nursery employers with trained, experienced workers ready to be employed in an integrated setting.

“CEA involves a lot of repetitive activity where clearly defined observations are crucial to efficiently nourish, harvest and pack produce,” said Driever.  “Regretfully, it’s not a great pathway to riches for average hands-on workers. It’s tough for employers to find enthusiastic workers that relish the scope of work who will show up for work faithfully while drawing minimum wage.  There is an underutilized labor market that can meet these needs.”

TAC IndustriesDriever went on to detail how TAC has operated a 3,000 square foot greenhouse and 1,000 square foot grow room raising leafy greens for the past 10 years.

“By teaching our individuals how to plant, transplant, harvest and pack produce (following strict QC / sanitary guidelines) we can provide local greenhouse / nursery employers with trained, experienced workers ready to be employed in an integrated setting.  We aren’t alone,” he added. “We are a member of the Growing Opportunities Partnership – a group of 10 different organizations sharing the same approach and methodology.  Even WE aren’t alone – there are probably at least 20 other groups across the country with the same mission.  That doesn’t include organizations providing vocational rehabilitation using greenhouse settings to veterans with PTSD, those previously incarcerated or in other socially disadvantaged groups.  Each of these can be a resource for employers – if they are aware of them.”

Driever shared information on the 10 organizations comprising the Growing Opportunities Partnership below and has offered to field any questions you might have, as he can connect you with an organization best suited to your geography  He can be reached at 937-525-7500.

The Arnold Center/We Grow – Midland, Michigan
Greg Knop | gknopp@arnoldcenter.org  |   ph 989-898-1592

The Arnold CenterLaunched in 2018, the indoor farm has approximately 6,000 square feet of space and capacity for 26,000 plants. The farm raises lettuce, kale, basil microgreens, amaranth, green and purple shiso, wasabi, cilantro and mint. Twelve full and part-time employees work at the indoor farm. They monitor the pumps, which dispense nutrients as they are needed. They transfer plants from germination to seedling stage and later to the area where plants grow to their desired size and are harvested. We have a great opportunity to explore agricultural sustainability and we’ve got a great opportunity to create jobs for people with disabilities. Arnold Farms uses no pesticides, and the founder Craig Varterian likes to call the facilities plants ‘purer than organic’. What’s Varterian’s dream for the future of Arnold Farms? He’d like to employ this kind of farming around the country, especially in ‘food deserts’ where food isn’t easily accessible.  “I’d like to see people with disabilities as leaders around the country in this type of farming,” he adds.  More information is available here. 

Developmental Disabilities Institute – Long Island, New York
Thomas Forester (Assistant Director) ph 631-360-4604

DDIFounded in 1961, DDI is a dynamic, non-profit agency with more than 30 locations throughout Long Island, NY.  It provides special education, vocational , day and residential programs, as well as healthcare services for more than 5,000 children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.  The Horticulture curriculum of DDI offers greenhouse opportunities to more than 300 adults served in Adult Day Services.  The greenhouse has been in operation for more than 30 years.  Some of the vegetables include peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, kale and various herbs to name a few.  The greenhouse offers 1,500 square feet of growing space.  This enables the DDI team to grow vegetables indoors during the colder weather.  Vegetables grown are either sold at farmers markets or used at various site for cooking classes.  More information is available here.

Greens Do Good – Hackensack, New Jersey
Jessalin Jaume, Farm Manger and Jennifer Faust, Operations Manager.   ph 201-960-2355

Greens Do GoodGreens Do Good raises microgreens, basil and butterhead lettuce hydroponically in Hoboken, New Jersey. They donate 100% of their proceeds to REED Next, a nonprofit organization supporting adults with autism. This helps provide continued education, life experience, and work opportunities so that these individuals can achieve greater independence and participate meaningfully in their communities. Greens Do Good also provides these individuals the opportunity to work at our farm. Our focus is on providing local businesses with top-quality, locally grown ingredients year-round. We hand-pick and pack our produce at the height of freshness and deliver them straight to our customer’s door for peak taste and nutrition. In the future, we hope to open more farms with the goal of expanding and continuing to create sustainable funding for REED Next. More information about our work is available here

Lettuce Dream – Maryville, Missouri
Charlie Clodfelter  (Director) ph 660-224-2203

Lettuce DreamLettuce Dream is a social enterprise engaged in hydroponic farming that exists to provide meaningful employment and job training programs for persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities so that they may enjoy the benefits of living, working and fully participating in our community.  Lettuce Dream was founded in 2016 and operates a 6700 square foot hydroponic greenhouse. Lettuce Dream helps to provide workplace skill training for young adults with intellectual disabilities. The people with disabilities in Lettuce Dream’s program take part in an internship alongside volunteers from the community, staff and their college peers from Northwest Missouri State University growing 500-700 lbs of leafy greens and living basil per week. The interns in the program help with all aspects of Lettuce Dream’s business operations including- seeding, transplant, packaging, food safety recordkeeping, data entry, invoicing and customer service. After obtaining the necessary pre-vocational skills and developing their resumes through the internship program, Lettuce Dream helps the interns transition to community employment. Lettuce Dream helps the individuals in the program secure jobs and provides further on the job support through job coaching. Since their founding, Lettuce Dream has helped provide employment supports for 24 people with disabilities and has an 83% placement rate for individuals that have completed the program.  More information is available here.

Medina Creative Produce – Medina, Ohio
Cheryl Kukwa (Greenhouse Manager) ph 330-591-4434

Medina Creative PRoduceMedina Creative Produce provides vocational training for students from Medina County School Districts and adults with physical and developmental disabilities, many whom are residents of Medina Creative Housing. Workers develop skills such as cultivating, harvesting and marketing locally grown, nutrient rich Butter Bibb and Romaine lettuce. Our hydroponic greenhouse is fully handicapped accessible to accommodate the broad spectrum of individuals with disabilities that we serve. In 2011, a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony was held celebrating the opening of our hydroponic greenhouse, which supplies local restaurants, schools and area businesses with gourmet lettuce. A weekly harvest produces on average six hundred heads of lettuce and proceeds pay the workers’ wages. Our lettuce is used to support our café’s located at local hospitals. More information available here.

The Murdoch Center – Butner, North Carolina
Hayley Tate (Recreational Therapist) ph 919-575-1253

Murdoch Developmental CenterMurdoch Developmental Center in Butner, NC is one of three state operated developmental centers, primarily serving 25 counties of the Central Region. Murdoch provides services and support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), complex behavioral challenges and or medical conditions whose clinical treatment needs cannot be supported in the community. Murdoch operates four specialty programs including children and adolescents programs which are available for individuals residing in all regions of the state. Our hydroponic greenhouse is a vital component of our vocational rehabilitation program. More information is available here.

Peacehaven Farm – Whitsett, North Carolina
Buck Cochran (CEO) ph 336-449-9900

Peacehaven Community FarmPeacehaven Community Farm is a sustainable farm established in 2007 and located on 89 beautiful acres of organic gardens, rolling pastures, and lush woodlands that connects people with special needs to their community – and connects their community to them! After high school graduation, there are few housing and programming options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Peacehaven seeks to offer these folks in our community the choice to live in a farm setting within a community where people with and without disabilities live and work side by side. We use the term “Core Members” to describe the individuals with disabilities who live and work at Peacehaven. That term reflects their central status in our community. They are at the core of all that we do and are the best teachers of the values of community. Major expansions in our vocational and housing programs are planned for this year. In our hydroponic greenhouse we focus on raising lettuce, greens and culinary herbs. Partnerships with other organizations in our community and the Growing Opportunities collation represent a keystone practice for Peacehaven. More information is available in this video.

The Trellis Center – Ellensburg, Washington
Heather Odenthal  heather@thetrelliscenter.com |  ph 509-968-4040

Trellis CenterCurrently more than 85% of individuals with developmental disabilities are unemployed due to lack of transitional support, job-site training, and employment opportunities geared for success. The Trellis Center aims to fill this gap for young adults with developmental disabilities who are approaching this transition time or adults who have graduated from high school but still need a structured environment designed to match programming to individual capabilities. With a focus on agriculture, the Trellis Center provides vocational skill development, stimulating activities, and a social community of peers. More information is available here

TAC Industries Inc. – Ohio
 Lou Driever (Hydroponics Coordinator) Springfield, Ohio ph 937-525-7500

TAC IndustriesBuilding on the success of the indoor hydroponic operation, TAC Industries Inc. built a 3,000 square foot hydroponic greenhouse in 2010. Twelve adults with developmental disabilities regularly work there to raise lettuce, kale, cilantro and orache. The produce is served at our sister restaurant “Fresh Abilities” and is also available at the local farmer’s market. Our customers have also included both public and private local schools, restaurants and the local culinary institute. We aim to donate 40# of produce each week to 2nd Harvest Food Bank (supporting over 60 pantries in 3 counties). More information is available here

Zeponic Farms – Woodbridge, Virginia
Zach Zeph (Founder) ph 571-296-4477

Zeponic FarmsThrough the use of innovative urban farming models, we provide supported employment for adults with special needs and autism. We grow greens and micro greens for local restaurants, colleges, and individuals within the community. All of our produce is non GMO and grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. More information is available here