Town Haul Rewind: Jonathan Webb, Founder of AppHarvest

On a quest to revolutionize the agricultural and social landscape of Eastern Kentucky, Jonathan Webb has his work cut out for him. Working from within Appalachia in Kentucky, AppHarvest is combining conventional agriculture techniques with technology innovation. He’s bringing his idea to the region, to the soil, and to the local schools.

Host Amy Koonin Taylor is joined via Skype by Webb to talk about all things education, entrepreneurship, and eating your vegetables.

On breaking down the AppHarvest business model:

JONATHAN WEBB: “The Netherlands is one-third the size of Kentucky in land mass. We can fit the entire country of the Netherlands into eastern Kentucky. Yet, the country has the second most agricultural exports in the world, only behind the US. They’re growing with incredible efficiency, getting very high yield, very little inputs. So when I was in DC and working on energy projects, I started to really unpack who was doing agriculture right around the world. And when I started researching agriculture, I kept getting led back to the Netherlands. And at this point, my take on tech is we have great researchers and scientists all around the world in labs and in San Francisco and Boston, trying to come up with the next big breakthrough. And from my perspective, it’s about execution and scale. 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 metrics or any way you look at it. And for me at AppHarvest, it was about taking proven technologies and deploying at 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 and eastern Kentucky.”

On the response in the surrounding community:

JONATHAN WEBB: “It’s been very, very rewarding. I would say to any entrepreneur or innovator or tech founder that might be listening to this that’s in Boston or New York or San Francisco, I’ve encouraged folks through the process, I was able to speak 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, not just from a passion project play, but it’s the right thing to do from an ROI standpoint. The community and the state that have rallied around what we’re doing, the ROI on our investment to be able to make this possible, this is absolutely not possible without the community support and state support that we’ve received. And I do think that for those folks that are looking to start a business and innovate, go back to your communities that’ll rally around you. I mean, meet with your community leaders and mayors. Meet with your congressman and see how you can build the business at home where you came from. And for me, doing it in Kentucky has been a wonderful thing personally. But also just the right business decision.”

On future benefits of farming and feeding:

JONATHAN WEBB: “Everybody talks about energy and our energy needs. I mean, the basic pillars of civilization, energy, agriculture, we’re not talking about master planning or policy around agriculture globally the way we should. By 2050, we’ll have a population that’ll reach nearly 10 billion. We will need 50 to 70% more food than what we currently produce today. Many people say we would need two planet Earths with enough land and water in order to grow that food. Right now, the world’s using 70 percent of its fresh water for agriculture production. Well, we don’t have 140 percent of fresh water. We have 100. And we’re already approaching that. So with indoor and controlled environment agriculture, with us, we’re able to use 90 percent less water than open field agriculture. So agriculture is something that we collectively need to focus on. And I am hopeful that food is becoming more of a topic and an ongoing conversation. But it’s something that we really need to be focusing on. And I don’t see it, even in the presidential debates and in DC. I’m in DC right now, and I just don’t feel like the conversation is elevated high enough for the general public and all of us to be thinking through what are the food systems in the future that are going to feed our communities.”

On engaging the next generation of decision makers:

JONATHAN WEBB: “A lot of people focus on the size or the scope of the project that we’re first building. But as I’ve tried to say, AppHarvest is not going to be defined by steel and glass or some structure or facility. We will be defined by the people of our region and together, we’ll work to redefine agriculture in America. But I’m fortunate enough that our investors really brought onto the vision. And we are a benefit corporation, a registered B Corp, which has allowed us to really look long, long term. I try to say, this is not just about doing passionately what feels right, but also just what is right for the business.”

On his favorite fruits and veggies:

JONATHAN WEBB: “I can eat a tomato like a peach, just grab a nice, big, plump red tomato, chew right into it. And then fruit, I do like peaches, raspberries. But I love plants. You can’t eat enough good healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

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Amy Koonin Taylor is Marketing Content and Media Manager at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.