Appalachia: America’s new agtech capital?

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AppHarvest, a US start-up already committed to building North America’s largest ‘controlled environment agricultural facility’ – a US$97 million, 2,760,000ft² hydroponic greenhouse on 60 acres of land in Morehead, Kentucky – has now announced ambitious plans to turn the long-suffering Appalachia region into the USA’s leading centre for agricultural technology.

The company is one of 17 signatories including the Dutch government, the state of Kentucky, several universities and numerous private companies of an international agreement to create a new agtech capital in Appalachia, a region spanning some 13 US states (West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), where 42% of the population is rural, compared with 20% of the national population.

The agreement calls for a series of research programs, construction of a centre of excellence and the building of further greenhouses that could eventually supply 45,000,000 lb of fresh vegetables each year and see some 30,000 jobs in sustainable vegetable cultivation created across the region.

It will also see the opening of a Dutch representative office in Kentucky to spur investment in the state by Dutch agtech companies at the forefront of current innovations.

Appharvest are no strangers to constructing greenhouses

Large scale hydroponic greenhouse construction (Image source AppHarvest)

Dutch expertise

The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, even with a land mass just one-third the size of Kentucky. Dutch technology enables farmers to grow up to 30 times more fruits and vegetables on a single acre indoors compared with a single acre outdoors, all the while reducing water usage by 90%.

Dutch agtech companies Dalsem, Signify, Certhon, Light4Food, Priva and Rijk Zwaan, along with Dutch public-private network organization NLWorks and two Dutch universities, will help their American partners to build new greenhouses, develop distribution to retail, and set up a local training and knowledge infrastructure, as well as attract further investment.

This agreement offers Dutch companies and knowledge institutions the opportunity to open a new foreign growth market for products, services and knowledge. With a US market for 80,000,000m² of greenhouses, the turnover potential for Dutch companies is estimated between €400-800 million.

Over the past two years, multiple delegations of Kentucky representatives visited the Netherlands to meet with nearly 20 cutting-edge leaders in the agriculture industry. Top Dutch officials also travelled to Kentucky to meet with its governor, as well as higher education and economic development officials. 

Why Kentucky?

Kentucky’s central geographic location provides a huge advantage in agtech: AppHarvest, which is currently focused on growing tomatoes at its Morehead facility, says its produce can reach 70% of Americans in a day’s drive, meaning fresher food and less food waste as grocers benefit from extended shelf life. Growing fruits and vegetables closer to where people eat them also helps prevent the frustrating supply issues that COVID-19 continues to reveal, caused by America’s increasing reliance on agricultural imports.

Meanwhile, Kentucky has also established an agtech advisory council to expand the state’s economy and create jobs, and launched a new website,, dedicated to the same purpose.

The council will include leaders in state government and local government, education and the business and labour sectors in Kentucky. Members will convene periodically to meet with the governor and advise him on matters relating to the agtech industry.

It is hoped such initiatives will address the economic and social challenges facing the state, which continues to be blighted by the decline in its once-thriving coal industry. Experts estimate the new centre of controlled vegetable cultivation could see up to US$10 billion invested in Kentucky in the coming years.

AppHarvest founder and CEO, Jonathan Webb

AppHarvest founder and CEO, Jonathan Webb

In Kentucky, we’re going to reopen and rebuild our economy even stronger than it was before COVID-19,” said Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s governor. “Partnerships like this one highlight our state’s 21st century leadership and limitless potential. I can’t wait to see the agtech industry continue to grow in Eastern Kentucky, led by AppHarvest and other companies that are reimagining the future of farming.”

This long-term partnership will add jobs and create a new signature industry for our Appalachian region,” added AppHarvest founder and CEO, Jonathan Webb. “It also demonstrates the kind of international cooperation that we need more of on the national level.

We didn’t reach this agreement overnight,” concluded Beshear. “It is the result of years of preparation and international cooperation, and I couldn’t be more grateful that each of these partners worked together to make it possible. The world is starting to recognize something Kentuckians have seen all along: our Appalachian region’s remarkable promise.”

Who has signed the agreement?

Signatories to the agreement include:

  • Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality (LNV), Directorate International Affairs;
  • Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Office of the Governor;
  • Dutch AgriTech companies Dalsem, Signify, Certhon, Light4Food, Priva and Rijk Zwaan;
  • The Netherlands’ HAS University of Applied Science and Fontys University of Applied Sciences;
  • The University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, University of Pikeville, Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College;
  • Dutch public-private network organization NLWorks;
  • AppHarvest.
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With over 20 years experience in editorial management and content creation for a broad spectrum of market-leading B2B magazines and websites in the transport and technology sectors, Anthony has written news and features covering everything from airport security to autonomous vehicles, and stadium design to sustainable energy.

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