Major Moves in the Mountains: AppHarvest founder Jonathan Webb
Hey guys my name is Amy Kuhnen and I am a millennial on a mission to eat clean cook dress and live more sustainably. It's because of that that I'm also the host of the town hall Rubicon I only podcast where we share sustainability stain ability stories from the industry's influencers and the biggest brands jam packed with tips tricks and needed no info for those that want to do better for the planet but may not know where to start. We are covering it all last year. We spoke to some incredible people who are doing doing some incredible things for our planet the Executive Director of the Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation The C._E._o.. Seven generation cleaning products and one of the brains behind environmental sustainability in the N._B._A.. This season or kicking it up a notch. Don't forget to download and subscribe on Itunes spotify or Iheartradio so that you don't miss a minute and if you can't catch us on your commute or you don't download directly don't stress you can check out our website at Rubicon global dot com slash townhall podcast for recaps reviews and all things townhall. Hey everyone welcome to another episode of the town hall today. I am joined by Jonathan Webb. He's the founder of APP harvest. It's a very cool company. They're bridging the gap gap between one of the oldest industries and some cutting edge tack but I'll let him talk more about that. Jonathan thank you so much for being here. Thank you for having me so. Let's just get right to it. Tell me a bit about you and how you got your start. You know your personal and Professional time-line event. How did you come up with this idea? Well Amy I grew up in Kentucky and places very important to me and <hes> ended up graduating from the University of Kentucky around two thousand and eight so so we all remember the the global financial crisis in at one point <hes> had the opportunity to pursue a career and potentially coal sales over in eastern Kentucky and did not do that and ended ended up moving to New York and <hes> pursued a career and solar development and since that time between two thousand eight and a couple of years ago before founding APP harvest. I was a part of developing some the largest solar solar projects in the southeast of the U._S.. <hes> was supporting a a White House. Initiative under the last administration were building large scale renewable projects on army land on what was a part of building the solar projects down in Georgia forbidding steward Gordon and just seeing the uptick of one industry the wind and solar industry that had that had taken off across this country over the past decade while also seeing the decline of coal on in the eastern part of the State of Kentucky. It was for me important to try to find a way to build large scale sustainable projects in the eastern part of our state and moving over from a large scale energy development to two large scale agriculture indoor agriculture specifically in this case with with Ab harvest that really being back in Kentucky has been refreshing again trying to bridge the divide of of all the capital in the brilliant and and bright minds are that we've seen go to work in the sustainable industry and try to try to get some of those folks over into into central Appalachia Eastern Kentucky and and hopefully this project is the start of that so now let's breakdown you know the APP harvest business model of how exactly is GonNa work right well. I've tried to say so. The country of the Netherlands is one third the size of Kentucky and landmass. We could fit the entire country the Netherlands in the. Eastern Kentucky yet the country has the second most agricultural exports in the world only behind the U._S.. The growing with incredible efficiency getting very high yield in very little inputs and so when when I was in D._C.. In working on the energy projects started to really unpack who is doing agriculture right around the world and when I started researching agriculture I kept getting lead back to the Netherlands in at this point. You know my my take on tech is we have great researchers and scientists all around the world and labs and in San Francisco and Boston trying to come up with the next big breakthrough in for my perspective it's about execution at scale and we have a lot of the right answers out there. In the world. We all know our planet is in peril by any number of metric or any way you look at it and for me it APP harvest it was about taking proven technologies and deploying get scale and so for us. We're taking the ecosystem that we see in the Netherlands where they are the clear world leader in agriculture and bringing those technologies over to our region in eastern Kentucky speaking of you know your region in Eastern Kentucky. Did you consider any other location for you know the first facility or did you always know that Kentucky should be home. I mean you don't really associate agriculture with maybe that part of the country right no for for me. We're focused on building the largest indoor produce of sustainable produce of America more. We're going to do it in eastern Kentucky so that's been the laser focused but but why Kentucky beyond just the fact that that but I love the state that I'm from Jeff as was in Kentucky about a month ago with our governor or they announced the one point five billion dollar Amazon Prime Facility U._P._S. has the World Port in Louisville Kentucky. We can get to about seventy seventy percent of the U._S.. And a one day drive so geographic location is is a critical part of why Kentucky and then also where we see with agriculture west of Colorado. It's drying up the Colorado River's drying up Arizona in California drought-stricken south of our border. This is where we grow most of our produce. The water is running out whereas in Kentucky we had the record amount of rainfall for state last year and we're on track to have the break that record this year with the most Mana Rain So why Kentucky great place to build a large indoor produce hub retool our food system in America get to seventy percent of the U._S.. Day drive and being very water rich region where water is going to be a scarce resource in decades. So what is the response been you know in the surrounding community are people just pumped to have y'all in Moorhead yes yes it's been very very rewarding. I would say to any any entrepreneur innovator or or tech founder. That might be listening to this. That's in Boston or New York or San Francisco. I encourage folks through the process of his able to speak it at Georgetown Law School and encourage folks to go back to their communities. Go back to their states or wherever they're from and try to work to solve problems there in not just from a passion project play but from it's the right thing to do from an charlize standpoint. I mean the the community in the state that have rallied around what we're doing the R._O._I.. On our investment to be able to make this possible this is absolutely not possible without the community support in state support that we've received and I and I do think for for those folks that are looking to start a business in innovate. Go back to your communities that will rally around you. I mean meet with your community leaders or mayor me with your congressman and see how you can build the business. Business at home where you came from and for me doing it in Kentucky is a wonderful thing personally but also just the right business decision so sustainable farming can boast some really awesome numbers when it comes to you know the reduction in water our consumption in that much I know I think a lot of people can infer from that but what are some other maybe not so well known benefits of farming in feeding this way. What are we going to see in the future? What amy we've gotta think long and hard about agriculture? Were everybody talks about energy in our energy needs. I mean the basic pillars of civilization energy agriculture. We're not talking about master planning policy around agriculture globally the way we should by twenty fifty with a population that will reach nearly ten billion we will need fifty to seventy percent more food than than what we currently produced today. Many people say we would need to planet Earth's with enough land and water in order to grow that food right now the world using seventy percent of its fresh water for agricultural production while we don't have a hundred and forty percent of fresh water we have a hundred and we're already approaching that so with indoor and controlled old environment agriculture with us were able to use ninety percent less water than open field agriculture don't use the harsh chemical pesticides will use integrated pest management in we can get a tremendous amount more yield per acre depending being on the crop or system were growing in so it's simply a must do around the world in I'm hopeful that policymakers not only in our country but around the globe start to look to the Netherlands in what they have done to build the most efficient Russian agricultural economy in the world and I hope the other other nations around the around the world begin to figure this out because to me. It's not about the I._p.. It's not about you know one company trying to hold onto the right answers again again. Our planet has real big problems and together. We have got to move rapidly to retool and deploy systems at scale and execute so for me. It's not about holding on to some I._P.. Were we we've got the best idea at the end the world it's about simply taking those best ideas in the world and working together in deploying scale so agriculture is is something that we we collectively need to focus on and I am hopeful. That food is becoming more of a topic in an ongoing conversation but it's something we need to really be focusing on and I don't see it even in the in the presidential debates or in D. C. M. IN D._c.. Right now and I just don't feel like the conversation is elevated high enough to really for the general public in all of has to be thinking through water the food systems of the future that are GonNa that are gonNA feed our community's well. I think that's the perfect price for you know food system for the future. I mean it's sixty acres right. It's sixty acres under glass so so this facility will be one of the if not the largest indoor connected grow facility. It'll be over two point seven million acres of grow area and then for us why the Glass Facility of course there's other indoor ABC companies in San Francisco in Brooklyn that have gotten a lot of attention. They're growing in warehouses or fully indoors and for us. We looked at it agnostic going. How do we do this and use these technology to best align with nature in Russ? The glass facility made the most sense because we get two free inputs that are planning gives us and that sunlight and rain water and if you're growing in those indoor warehouses you're not unable to capture the sunlight and for us we really wanted to utilize those inputs so the glass facility allows us to layer on the technology on the inside the software the sensors to drive efficiency but we can still capture the sunlight and. Have the artificial lighting on top then additionally on top of that the way we have designed this system it will be one of the if not the only system to run completely on recycled rainwater so that sixty Acre facility will collect the rain water on top and it will put it in retention pond where we then circulate the rain water back into the grow facility that is critical for a couple of reasons one. We have aging infrastructure around our country in all all around the world where we've seen what's happened in Flint Michigan and other communities that have had aging water infrastructure for us to be able to island our facility and run completely on rainwater makes us very resilient and doesn't put a press <music> on local water systems beyond that water that comes from the ground or comes from water treatment plants has sodium in it that's important because when the water runs through the hydroponic system the sodium builds adds up you have to flush water through the system to get the sodium out which washed down a wastewater system where you get agricultural runoff because we're running this system completely on recycled rainwater rainwater has is no sodium as a result. We can have a closed loop system. We're not putting any wastewater or will not have any agricultural runoff from this facility so from our standpoint we tried to take technologies in a layer on top of the natural all systems that are planning to provide us Mrs one step in the in the right direction of what we feel like agriculture in America can live like that is just any it's so brilliant in I mean so nuts. What are you guys GonNa grow in there any specialty crops yes so we'll focus on specialty crops with this type of system? You could grow tomatoes cucumbers peppers. You could alter it a bid and grow berries or leafy Greens or Herbs Address. We're GONNA focus on tomatoes additionally some cucumbers a wide tomatoes and it not getting into any geopolitical trade conversation simply from a environmental perspective the average American meals traveling fifteen hundred miles by the time it gets to our plates produce imports from south of our border. If nearly tripled in the last ten to fifteen years there were four billion nearly four billion pounds of tomatoes that were imported from Mexico alone last year so where those tomatoes are being truck five days on a semi truck to get to the eastern seaboard that just doesn't make any sense from an environmental standpoint so for us we want to focus on tomatoes grow in our region be able to get to seventy percent of the U._S.. Population or one day drive that'll reduce our diesel consumption and transportation by eighty to ninety percent less diesel so why tomatoes just so we can try to try to bring some of that production home and and get our diesel consumption down eighty to ninety percent on on the transportation transportation but then from there will move out to too many other varieties as we continue to build in the eastern part of our state. Our show is geared towards a younger generation of people you know we want to be conscious. Consumers and we want to ultimately leave the planet a little bit better than when we first got here and that includes millennials and that includes Gen Z. and so throughout some of my research I saw that APP harvest has put a big emphasis on you know not only production in agriculture but the education of the system so what are the some of the things that you guys are doing to engage the next generation of decision makers amy. Anything for bringing that up a lot of people focus on the size and scope of the project diverse building but as I've tried to say an APP harvest is not going to be defied by steel and glass or some structure facility will be defined by the the people of our region and together will work to redefine agriculture in America but yet this has been. I'm fortunate enough to did our investors a really bought onto the vision and we are a benefit corporation a registered benefit corporation which has allowed us to really look long long term. I I try to say this is not just about doing passionately what feels right but also what just is right for the business and for us we look at that ecosystem in in Holland in for us. If we want to develop this culture and mindset of what agriculture can be you. Don't go around and talk to a high school student. You don't ear anybody that says I want to be a farmer here. I WANNA be a doctor. I want to be a lawyer. Maybe I WANNA be an athlete or move to L._A.. To go get into acting you don't hear anybody say I WANNA be a farmer in the in the reality is the average age of the farmer in America is is in their sixties and we've got to find a way to recalibrate in rethink through what farming is so for us. I met Kimbal Musk throughout this process a spin a COUPLA hours with him at a family function down in Bentonville Arkansas were Walmart is and he was telling tell me about his company's Square roots in Brooklyn or square roots has containers in Brooklyn or they're growing indoors. There shipping containers like a semi truck that they've converted endorse. I went up I met the C._E._O.. And I looked at some of the containers honors brilliant idea and again I think agriculture is going to be redefined in many different ways and in what they're doing is is an amazing effort and we thought you know we're building the large scale grow facilities but what better way to engage edged the youth in our region in so when I went up there and saw it I remember it was a Sunday morning at gotten back to Kentucky and I called the principal at Shelby Valley high school and I said Hey Greg. We're GONNA Order Shipping Container Tator <unk>. Can we put it at your high school. In within a matter of days. We had already a work frankly before I called Greg we had already ordered the container. I was just hoping he'd say yes. We move really fast so greg rally in Shelby Valley a High School in Pike County Kentucky really rallied around this. We put the shipping container at the high school. We had nearly eighty or ninety students that applied to get into a program that we set up. We can only take thirty. We had kids come in at six thirty in the morning an hour before school to take over this container they brought it to life. We offered you know some of the classes to stand up the facility but they've really just brought it to life. In what we're trying to do is just create a culture of of growing. We've we've lost that in in high schools and middle schools and elementary schools around the country were not growing food. We're not talking about food. We're not talking about where our food comes from in. I do think you know some of the AG tech leaders in America are GONNA come from Shelby Valley High School in Pike County Kentucky whether they end up working with APP harvest or they come up with their own ideas for how we're going to recreate farming in America. I'm confident did did some of those students that have been working with us. We'll will be some of those young leaders and for us. It's really critical going back to what I said with. Half harvest will not be defined by steel and glass structures in the long run when we look back in five or ten years it's going to be the people of our region have dug in with us US evaluated technologies see how we can best farm. It'll be US working together in it'll ultimately be people defining. What harvest is or what the future of agriculture looks like in our region? I think that's absolutely right and you hit. John the head you know I've seen you on sixty minutes and I watch you know the squawk box videos in the Ted talks in rent everything on twitter and you know the scale and the scope of the project is huge but like you were saying it's really the impact impact of the project that matters so before I let you off the hook. I did WANNA play a little game. I'm going to shoot off a couple rapid. Fire questions and you just say the first thing that comes to your mind ready go for Jamie number one. What does your morning routine like a drink a lot of water number two? What was your first job? I mowed lawns when I was growing up. Who is the last person that you texted though good friend Scott at my at our company News Birkenau always try to keep me on track so good shoutout Scott slump? What does an ideal Saturday look like for you a nice early walk in the morning with ideally a nice good son sunrise? If any actor dead editor alive could play you in the movie of Your Life. Who would you cast yourself? Oh Gosh amy really well Johnny Depp and George Clooney from Kentucky so I think I'd take either one of them. Yeah those aren't bad options. What did you WanNa be when you grow up? You're talking about how kids don't want to be farmers. What did you want to be? You know amy for me. My biggest inspiration growing up was my father. Who's WHO's an entrepreneur and had a small business and I knew I was going to form something think of my own? I did not know who is going to be farming and I did not know it was going to be a project of this scale but but always knows gonNA GONNA start. A small business knew that from early on well that's weird that you're reading my mind because my next question is what is one one small piece of advice you have for a budding entrepreneur. Find someone with integrity that you really look up to because a lot of things come and go in this world but integrity doesn't in it takes a lifetime to build your character and it takes a very short time for that to deteriorate so I think for entrepreneurs and I'm not sure that it's talked about enough. You know people talk about the business side or the economics or how to raise money but I think integrity and character especially in on this day when purpose is so important to business you know finding good role models that have integrity and character should be critical to any entrepreneur Lee tact a bit about tomatoes in Kooks but what are what's your favorite fruit which your favorite Veggie. Oh Oh gosh well. I do love tomatoes. I I can eat a tomato like a peach. Just grab a nice big plump bread tomato to right into it in fruit. I I do like do like peaches raspberries but I love plants. You can't eat enough good good healthy fresh fruits and vegetables so I love love all varieties of fruits and veggies and lastly. What does success mean to you well? I mean I think again. We're in a world where there's a lot of problems and in for me. Thank success should be defined by impact at scale in businesses without purpose really don't serve our society at this point. We we need folks who were striving and success being defined by impact would be a great benchmark so for me impacted scale would be the way in which I would define success and I love that and I love what y'all are doing. You know we're excited about the future and just really pumped to watch watch you know no pun intended to watch harvest grow China than thank you so much for spending your Monday morning with me. Why Amy Thank you for having me in? This is an incredible podcast. I've gotten to know Nate Morris founder and C._E._O.. At Rubicon global will very well and I think it's it's also important for people to look at businesses that that are a little messy in the way that Rubicon gone into the trash business to to revolutionize the way in which the trash industry is run in.