Controlled Environment Agriculture and the Future of Farming

Dave Nichols, Chief Strategy Officer

Challenges with Traditional Farming 

For thousands of years, traditional agricultural methods have allowed humans to grow food and provide for their communities.  However, as we’ve evolved, traditional techniques have remained relatively stagnant, considering the tech revolution we’ve experienced in the 21st century. 

Our world is continuing to grow rapidly, with a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050, and current agricultural methods aren’t enough to keep up. According to United Nations reports, it’s estimated that we will need to increase food supply by at least 70% to feed the global population in 30 years. 

Let that sink in for a minute.  

We are being tasked with producing more food in the next few decades than we have in the last 10,000 years, which sounds daunting, to say the least. 

We are being tasked with producing more food in the next few decades than we have in the last 10,000 years.

So how do we revamp an industry that hasn’t seen much innovation since the invention of the tractor? 

The good news is, it’s not all bad news. 

Controlled Environment Agriculture: A New Opportunity  

More recently, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) has gained traction in the agriculture industry for its ability to help solve many of the issues our current agricultural industry is facing, such as less healthy land for growing, unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change, and chemical pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables imported from places, like Mexico, that can grow year-round produce. CEA is a technology-based approach that allows us to grow crops in an enclosed environment, which is a night-and-day difference from traditional open-field farming. When you boil it down, CEA uses science and technology to create a ‘simulated’ outdoor farm. But what sets CEA apart from traditional agriculture is right there in its name: “controlled.” This new form of agriculture allows modern farmers to measure and dispense precise amounts of water and nutrients, grow year-round with the assistance of indoor lights and climate-controlled buildings, and yield exponentially more produce in a significantly smaller space.  

One of the several advantages of CEA is that it can be done in almost any contained area, whether that be a greenhouse, inside our homes, or even underground. Such flexibility allows us to grow in any location while giving us the unique opportunity to grow year-round, unlike traditional farming. 

The urgency to innovate has never been more apparent. The global pandemic exposed many issues within the food supply chain and, as a result, CEA has been identified as a potential solution to improve food systems, because it allows us to grow more food with fewer resources.  

At AppHarvest, we’re planting seeds—quite literally, but also figuratively—for a brighter future of farming. 

AppHarvest is Farming for the Future 

You may have heard some different things about us, like that we’re based in Appalachia and pretty proud of that. Or that we grow tons—literally, tons—of tomatoes. Or that we just build gargantuan high-tech indoor greenhouses. All of which are true. But we’re a lot more than a greenhouse company. 

AppHarvest is combining conventional agriculture techniques with today’s technology to usher in a new era of farmers and futurists. We believe that CEA is farming for the future, and we’re hell-bent to show the world that what we’re doing can be an absolute game-changer.  

Despite the pandemic, we were able to build our flagship 60-acre, farm in Morehead, Kentucky, in hopes of filling the regional economic void left from the collapse of the coal industry, but also to prove that CEA is scalable. 

Controlled environment facilities help us farm faster, so we can sustainably grow nutritious, more delicious foods on a large scale—we’re talking up to 30x more yield per acre than traditional farming.  

The glass facility allows us to use sunlight first, and supplement with LEDs that allow us to keep growing, even when the sun isn’t up. Beyond that, we run on 100% recycled rainwater and use 90% less water than open-field agriculture (remember that tidbit above about growing more with less?). 

We’re Just Getting Started

Our Morehead facility is just the first in a plan to create a network of high-tech indoor farms across Appalachia, with 11 more facilities planned by the end of 2025. 

The CEA sector as a whole is continuing to grow rapidly, with more investor interest than ever before. In fact, a total of $929 million was invested across 41 deals in the United States in 2020. And with the U.S.’s ability to scale big and quickly, as a country, we have the potential to lead the world in CEA.  

Our current agricultural system is in need of a drastic shift if we’re going to feed hundreds of millions more people in 30 years. It’s not going to happen all at once, and it’s not going to happen without the right people and organizations pushing for change. But with a united vision for a more sustainable and efficient way to produce the food we eat, we’re one step closer to farming of the future. 

Interested in learning more about CEA? Our CEO Jonathan Webb is pretty passionate about it. Check out his thoughts on how CEA may be the big idea to change the world: 

Authority Magazine: AppHarvest: Jonathan Webb’s Big Idea That Might Change The World 
Motley Fool: An Interview With AppHarvest Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb 
Seeking Alpha: AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb – The Future Of Farming 

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