AppHarvest is a sustainable food company dedicated to developing and operating some of the world’s largest high-tech indoor farms in Appalachia. AppHarvest aims to create a reliable, climate-resilient food system utilizing robotics and artificial intelligence. AppHarvest’s innovative farming methods allow them to use sunlight and rainwater to grow to produce while using up to 90% less water than traditional open-field farming. Additionally, their yields are claimed to be 30 times greater than those produced by conventional agriculture while preventing pollution from agricultural runoff.
Currently, AppHarvest operates four farms across Kentucky. Their flagship farm, located in Morehead, spans 60 acres and specializes in growing tomatoes. They also have a 15-acre
indoor farm in Berea dedicated to salad greens, a 30-acre farm in Somerset for strawberries and cucumbers, and a 60-acre farm in Richmond for tomatoes. Combined, the four farms span 165 acres under glass. As a public benefit corporation and a Certified B Corp, AppHarvest is committed to not only achieving financial success but also to making a positive impact on society and the environment. We recently sat down with Travis Parman, Chief Communications Officer of AppHarvest, to talk about the role of robotics and AI in vertical farming.
With robotics and AI becoming more prevalent in every work sector while revolutionizing the workplace, we can see shortly fully autonomous farming. Travis Parman, Chief Communications Officer of AppHarvest, mentioned, “We see robotics and AI as enablers in CEA–especially helping growers manage Big Data to optimize plant health and production. For example, the AppHarvest Berea salad greens farm already features a touchless growing system with autonomous harvesting. Since opening our flagship farm, our tech team has referred to it as a “60-acre robot” based on the high level of automation controlling temperature, humidity, and lighting.”
The trend of utilizing advanced technology to support agriculture had already begun before the pandemic. AppHarvest’s approach to controlled environment agriculture (CEA) was built upon the transfer and improvement of technology from the Netherlands, which has been developing since World War II. In addition, the increasingly unpredictable and difficult-to-manage growing seasons caused by shifting weather patterns have further accelerated technology adoption to reduce the risks associated with agriculture and create more climate-resilient solutions.
Fully autonomous farms have multiple benefits, such as limiting the risk of propagation through human error, being able to work 24/7, and, most importantly, minimizing contamination. “At the AppHarvest Berea salad greens farm, the touchless growing system provides a hands-free environment and has the added advantage of improving food safety by minimizing the chances of introducing harmful contaminants.” Mentioned Travis. AppHarvest is constantly exploring ways to optimize the efficiency of its processes through the
utilization of technology. They begin by utilizing natural resources such as sunshine and rainwater. Then, when additional energy is necessary, they incorporate a hybrid lighting system composed of LED and HPS grow lights. AppHarvest LED lights are 40% more energy-efficient than traditional HPS grow lights.
As technology improves, many worry that the increasing use of robotics will destroy jobs and certain portions of the economy. “You can’t displace a job that does not exist,” expressed Travis. “Part of AppHarvest’s mission is to provide good jobs in Appalachia—an economically distressed area—while improving domestic U.S. food security. The U.S. currently relies on more than two-thirds of its fruits and vegetables being imported, so these jobs currently do not exist here. This puts us at extreme risk of food insecurity should those supply lines be disrupted by pandemics, extreme weather, or geopolitical events. From a security and a sustainability perspective, we need to reduce food miles and grow food closer to where we consume it while ensuring those who produce it earn fair wages.”
Image provided by AppHarvest