If you aren’t a regular watcher of the television news show ‘60 Minutes’ you likely missed a very interesting story recently about a new business coming to Eastern Kentucky, located just down the road a bit.
We also wrote about this story last week. We are referencing the arrival of AppHarvest, a Kentucky-based AgTech company, that is planning a major development in Rowan County. AppHarvest is scheduled to build one of America’s largest greenhouses and launch a series of education partnerships to turn the region into the country’s AgTech capital. The projected location is right off KY 801 North in Rowan County. The company, meanwhile, is based out of Pikeville.
This story is intriguing for a lot of reasons. The first reason is the most obvious -- new jobs. To see 280 jobs come to this region is an important development that should not go unnoticed. In this case, 280 agriculture jobs are great news for our county residents.
We are optimistic many who are looking for work will be able to find a good paying job at this facility. It is our understanding these are not minimum wage jobs -- they are created with the purpose of not just making a profit. The project is also aimed at bettering the community.
The story of AppHarvest is interesting for other reasons as well. The major investors behind this project are from the Silicon Valley. It is funded by an entity known as Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. That fund is managed by the founder of AOL, Steve Case (‘you've got mail’ fame), and also involves best-selling author J.D. Vance -- a man with authentic Appalachian roots. The fund is backed by more than 30 iconic business leaders, including Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and former Google Chair Eric Schmidt. In other words, there is real money behind this project. It does not appear to be some pipe dream.
Another reason the story is interesting is the intention by those involved in Rise of the Rest to not forget about rural America. As Case aptly said, so much economic development in America is focused on our major municipal areas. This, in turn, has left many in rural America feeling as if they’ve been left behind. Case himself said it isn't just a feeling -- it is instead a reality that they have been left behind.
A lot of the ‘60 Minutes’ story of course mentioned the opioid epidemic and how it has been so devastating to our region. Fair enough. No jobs equal hopelessness and despair and, for some, chronic drug use. This type of seed development aimed at creating jobs, then, can be an important tool in combating that hopelessness.
There is another reason the story captured our attention. It is the push to once again capitalize in America on the vast resource of our rural/agricultural resources. We are strong believers that this is an untapped resource in our region. And, when we talk to those in economic development they say the same thing -- that one of the few economic development growth sectors very few people talk about, but which is ripe for more development in eastern Kentucky, is agriculture. In a world of increasingly industrialized farms where farmers have to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to even try to make a go of it — leading to a rise in farm bankruptcies across the nation — there is increasingly a niche market for healthy, locally grown foods. We believe Rowan County can fit into this model perfectly.
In this particular case involving AppHarvest the plan is to craft, remarkably, an indoor operation. The 60-acre greenhouse in Morehead will produce tomatoes, one of the largest U.S. imports from Mexico. The greenhouse will grow non-GMO, chemical-free produce to be sold to the top 25 U.S. grocers.
“It’s the people of Eastern Kentucky that have powered our country through coal over the last few decades,” said Jonathan Webb, the company’s president and CEO. “It’s that work ethic, that tenacity, that grit that we're trying to harness for this industry."
This in our view is an amazingly great idea. It has the potential to bring new, good paying jobs to the region through a true spirit of entrepreneurship. We are thankful for this investment and look forward to seeing how it turns out.