9-11 SOAR App Harvest VR.JPG

Dean Crockett, with AppHarvest, helps a participant put on a VR headset for a virtual greenhouse tour.

JEREMY D. WELLS | JOURNAL-TIMES

There is little that Appalachian foodies appreciate more than a good, garden fresh tomato in season. They may debate the best way to bread a fried green tomato, or the proper condiment for a juicy tomato sandwich (the correct answer is salt and pepper only, by the way, so there is no need to argue about what brand of mayonnaise), but one thing that is undeniable is the love for the savory fruit. Once summer is over, though, and garden fresh tomatoes are gone, the excitement pales.

Everyone who loves them has had the experience of picking up

a gorgeous, plump, firm, red tomato in a grocery store, getting home and slicing into it with anticipation, only to find that it's dry and tasteless.

“Like the cardboard box it came in,” is a common description of these “hot house” tomatoes that you find in the winter.

But the problem, explained Matt Gosnell with AppHarvest, isn't necessarily that it was grown in a hot house. In fact, many of the so-called “hot house tomatoes” might have actually been grown outdoors.

The problem, he explained, is in the picking.

Because of the long transport time from California or Guatemala that these off-season fruits undertake, they aren't picked at the peak of ripeness. Instead they are picked early and allowed to ripen on the truck as they are moved to market.

AppHarvest expects to fix this problem. By growing fruit much closer to the markets where it will be sold, they can afford to leave their tomatoes on the vine longer, allowing them to ripen properly and for their flavors to develop.

If they have their way, next winter you might be able to pick up a grocery store tomato that is every bit as juicy and tasty as the ones from your own summer garden. This is all thanks to a growing technology that has already been thoroughly tested in other countries around the world.

“There are a couple of unique things about it,” said AppHarvest's VP of Development Matt Gosnell. “First we have to talk about our retention pond, which is ten acres and will hold a three-month supply of rain water we will use and recirculate through our facility and hydroponic system, so it will be a near net-zero water facility,” he said.

This means they won't need to purchase any outside water to grow their crops, and they won't be contributing to waste water disposal for the community.

But the other thing tomatoes need is light, and they plan to make use of those sunny days as much as possible.

“We're collecting rainwater; we're also using sunlight. That differentiates us from the vertical farms you might have read about where you retrofit a warehouse, stack trays (and use all artificial light),” he added.

That doesn't mean they won't be using any artificial light. They've got a state of the art LED system, and lights will be used to regulate the temperature in the environment, but the plants will get the full spectrum of the sun's rays to grow the plants as close to nature as possible.

“Our strategy is: we're here in Kentucky which gives us a lot of land, and we want to use what God gives us, which is the sun and the rainwater, so the warehouse model isn't exactly what we're going after. Our facility is 60 acres under glass, 2.7 million plus square feet. This is a monster. Three quarters of a mile from one end to the next. So, in terms of the controlled environment itself, it uses different technologies depending on what type of produce you're growing. In this case, tomatoes, which like high heat. So we're using combination high pressure sodium lighting, which is traditional for tomatoes, as well as interspersed LEDs. It's actually going to be the largest LED lighting system in the world, under glass. That, at the same time, brings our energy costs down and also provides us with a heavier fruit, more dense fruit. So it's a win-win for us. We spend a little more money up front, and we get a great return on it, in terms of more volume, more product, as well as making us a more sustainable facility.”

Gosnell said the technology is “very unique” for the United States, but it's been used elsewhere in the world where the need for sustainable, indoor agriculture is more pressing.

“We're getting this technology from people who have been doing this very efficiently for decades. I'm talking about the Dutch, principally. The Israelis are also very good at this. These are people that had to do this. Post WWII the Netherlands was in heavy food need, so they developed this technology out of necessity and perfected it over the decades. So we're bringing that technology to Kentucky.”

Another advantage of this system over traditional agriculture is the efficiency of space.

“We can grow in one acre what would take ten acres (in traditional field based agriculture),” Gosnell said. “This is a result of controlling the environment, controlling the water, controlling the nutrients, pH, and giving a plant exactly what it needs. So, compared to open field agriculture, not only are you more efficient, but you take the guess work out of the possibility of worsening storms, too much or not enough water, pests. These things, we take all the guess work out of it. So we've got a predictable four to five harvests a year. We can give you the date. We can give you the volume. Because we know exactly what we're growing and the quantity... We're really excited that this is going to be our first project, of what we hope is going to be many, here in the bluegrass.”

The other side of the product's value in being produced locally, once it's grown, is the shipping.

“If you look at a tomato market, specifically, six billion pounds of tomatoes are consumed each year in the United States. Almost four billion of that comes from Mexico,” Gosnell said. “So we've all had the experience of biting into what looks like a very ripe and tasty tomato, only to find it utterly tasteless. This is because it's picked when it's not yet ripe, it's sprayed, it's put on a truck. Then it's five to six days north to a market. So we're saying, 'Hey, we're going to get you something grown in Kentucky. It's going to be fresher. It's going to taste a lot better. It's going to be healthier, with more nutrients. And we're going to get it to you in a quicker time at a decreased price than what you are paying now.' So it's a win-win-win for us all around, and it's been a really exciting thing to see come to fruition.”

Contact the writer at jwells@journal-times.com.

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