Control ag company AppHarvest is adding more of both crop types and technologies to its budding greenhouse network, according to the company’s Q1 2021 earnings call this week. That includes strawberries, leafy greens, harvesting bots, and lots of data.
The company, which went public in February, is best known at this point for the 60-acre greenhouse facility it operates in Morehead, Kentucky, where it grows beefsteak tomatoes. AppHarvest sent out its first shipment of these tomatoes to grocery stores earlier this year. Customers now include Kroger and Wendy’s.
CEO Jonathan Webb said on the company’s earnings call this week that two more Kentucky greenhouses, one in Richmond and one in Berea, will be operational next year, and that with them, AppHarvest will start growing leafy greens and strawberries. Webb pointed out that while his company may have started with tomatoes — a fairly traditional crop when it comes to greenhouse growing — the eventual aim is to “grow the company into a trusted high-tech sustainable food company.”
As far as that tech goes, AppHarvest’s CTO Josh Lessing said on the investor call that the company is investing in “robotics, artificial intelligence, teleoperation, and proprietary seed genetics.” To date, its biggest move has been the acquisition of Root AI, a startup best known for its crop-harvesting bot Virgo. (Lessing was the cofounder and CEO of Root AI before the acquisition.)
“Presently, we are training our intelligent robot Virgo to manage crops and inform growing decisions,” Lessing said on the call, adding that Virgo could eventually be configured to harvest multiple different crops, including delicate ones like strawberries — hence the company’s announcement to move into the realm of berry growing.
As a crop, strawberries are highly suited to the controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) realm because they are extremely delicate, perishable, and normally require boatloads of pesticides when grown outside. Moving the grow process indoors, to a fully controlled environment, means better protection for crops from weather hazards, no pests and therefore no need for pesticides, and more consistent temperatures and humidity levels that can ensure better-tasting plants with a more robust nutritional profile.
Given the amount of sunlight strawberries need for optimal growing, greenhouse settings are obvious candidates, since they rely largely on the sun with only supplemental LEDs. However, vertical farms, which use LEDs to mimic the sun’s light spectrum, are also now growing strawberries. Plenty, Oishii, and SinGrow are just a few of the names on that list. Whether one method will wind up superior to the other will (among other things) depend on what the end product tastes like as well as how much it costs to grow, sell, and buy.
For AppHarvest, though, the real win with technology will be not so much about the crops it can grow but the data Virgo and other tools can collect. That data can in turn get analyzed and turned into actions and insights applicable across the AppHarvest greenhouse network. “Granular plant level data from each fruit means we can learn exactly how to optimize quality, production, sales and logistics,” said Lessing. “This foundation will give us the opportunity to restructure the world’s food supply in order to mirror the hyper efficient e-commerce landscape.”
Along those lines, the company will expand beyond these first three facilities in the future. Two more projects will be announced this summer and are slated to be operational in late 2022. Webb said on this week’s call the company is on track to operate 12 greenhouses by 2025. By then, one imagines those facilities will grow a whole lot more than greens, strawberries, and tomatoes.