High-tech indoor farmer AppHarvest starts shipping tomatoes

AP – AppHarvest — an indoor farming company backed by Martha Stewart — thinks the agriculture sector is ripe for disruption. And now, its tomatoes are ripe for eating.

The Morehead, Kentucky-based company said on Tuesday it has begun shipping beefsteak tomatoes to Kroger, Walmart, Publix and other grocers. Eventually, AppHarvest plans to ship 45 million pounds of tomatoes each year from its 60-acre indoor farm in Morehead.

AppHarvest is one of many players in the fast-growing field of indoor farming. Others include New York-based Gotham Greens, which has eight urban greenhouses across the United States (US), and Plenty, a vertical farming startup in San Francisco. In a recent global survey, Agritecture Consulting — which works with urban farmers — found that at least 74 indoor farming companies were founded in 2020 alone.

The industry is getting a boost from high-tech farming techniques developed in the highly profitable alternative medicine industry, said an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University Evan Lucas who heads its indoor agriculture programme. Falling costs for LED lighting have also helped decrease the cost of operating indoor farms, he said.

Greenhouses have been around for decades, but not until recently have they grown into such large-scale facilities. At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking for better-tasting, sustainably produced food, Stewart said. AppHarvest uses no chemical pesticides and says its tomatoes are bred for flavour, not long-haul travel, unlike tomatoes grown in Mexico.

Tomatoes being grown in AppHarvest Morehead, Kentucky facility. PHOTO: AP

“We know how flavourless and devoid of nutrients tomatoes are when they are picked a month ago,” said Stewart during a video news conference on Tuesday.

“I think that we all need and want better food for us, for our families, for our friends.”

Stewart also wants organic produce to be more affordable and accessible. She said she was shocked when she went to the grocery last Saturday and had to pay USD98 for a small cart full of organic vegetables.

AppHarvest said its Morehead greenhouse, which houses 720,000 tomato plants over the equivalent of 45 football fields, is one of the largest single-storey buildings in the world. Its tomato plants will be harvested continually and can grow to 45 feet high, helping achieve 30 times the yield of a traditional farm.

Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb, a Kentucky native, said Appalachia is ideal because of its heavy rainfall. AppHarvest uses only recycled rainwater to water its plants.

But Webb said AppHarvest is also keen to invest in an economically depressed region which has long depended on coal.