An Eastern Kentucky start-up with plans to build some of the largest greenhouses in the nation announced Monday it will launch a program at a Pikeville-area high school to train students for careers in high-tech agriculture.
AppHarvest has made national news for its ambitious but long-delayed business plan, which includes employing 140 people at a proposed $60 million greenhouse in Pikeville’s industrial park.
Its program at Shelby Valley High School is set to begin Wednesday, and is coupled with a proposed initiative at the University of Pikeville to train college students for work in high-tech agriculture.
A UPike spokesperson said the university hopes to offer its program in the fall semester of 2019, but that classes specific to high-tech agriculture “are contingent on a variety of factors, including AppHarvest’s timeline, accreditation and faculty approval.”
The high school classes will be led by Ramel Bradley, the community director for AppHarvest and a former starting point guard at the University of Kentucky. He will lead the courses with the help of Brooklyn-based AgTech X, which hosts workshops and classes about food systems and agriculture.
AppHarvest, financed in part by an investment group co-managed by “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, has experienced significant delays since it was first approved for state tax incentives totaling $2.5 million in February 2017.
Company officials said at the time that construction of a 2 million square-foot greenhouse in Pikeville would begin in June of that year.
“It’s very difficult, it’s very difficult, but we’re charging every day,” Jonathan Webb, founder and chief executive officer at AppHarvest, told a crowded gymnasium Monday at Shelby Valley.
Webb told the Herald-Leader that construction at a handful of sites should begin this fall, but declined to say if that included the Pikeville project.
AppHarvest plans to grow vegetables at multiple greenhouses throughout Appalachia, and to distribute to major metropolitan centers along the Eastern seaboard.
According to an article in the New York Post, the company hopes to eventually employ 600 people throughout the region.
Because of Eastern Kentucky’s location — it sits within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the U.S. population — Webb said the region is poised to lead a new model for agriculture in America.
“AppHarvest believes Eastern Kentucky is part of the solution, and we’re going to lead the charge,” Webb said. “We’re going to build farms from the ground up that we can all be proud of.”
Other speakers at the high school included Burton Webb, president of the University of Pikeville; Jared Arnett, president of Shaping Our Appalachian Region; and Miss Kentucky Katie Bouchard.
Vance, who attended the event and spoke to students, praised AppHarvest for creating hope among the region’s youth, and for giving them opportunities for prosperous careers in Eastern Kentucky.
Vance’s investment group, Rise Of The Rest, is part of a larger firm called Revolution, founded by AOL co-founder Steve Case. Its mission is to invest in start-ups and early-stage companies “that disrupt existing, multi-billion industries,” according to its website.
Rise Of The Rest officials declined to say how much the group has invested in AppHarvest. According to its website, the firm’s investments typically run between $100,000 and $1 million.
Vance said the firm has put “a substantial amount of time and investment” into its relationship with AppHarvest.
AppHarvest is one of several proposed projects that officials hope will help boost and diversify Eastern Kentucky’s struggling economy.
A sharp downturn in the coal industry in 2012 left many Eastern Kentucky counties struggling to replace lost jobs — in some counties, the number of coal jobs dropped by more than 60 percent between 2011 and 2013.
Arnett, the president of SOAR, told students the future of Appalachia lies with them.
He described SOAR as a “network of people who refuse to accept the result of doing nothing,” and asked students to “keep fighting the good fight.”