entucky’s leading role in the emergence of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), more commonly known as indoor farming, is a case study in collaboration among entrepreneurs, government and academia, and just one example of the commanding position Kentucky has staked in the world of agriculture technology.
Synthesizing any number of varied definitions, AgriTech (also known as agtech), applies to the use of emerging technologies to increase yields and efficiencies and, not inconsequentially, to promote sustainable practices geared toward soil health, minimizing water usage, reducing pollution and creating jobs.
Gov. Andy Beshear was ahead of the game when, in 2020, he signed an international agreement with 16 other partner organizations — including the ag-innovation-leading Dutch government — committed to creating America’s AgriTech capital in Appalachia. An AgriTech Advisory Council established under the agreement promotes agricultural innovation statewide. June 2022 saw the launch of the Bluegrass Ag Tech Development Corp., founded to cultivate an ecosystem for AgriTech startups with input from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the City of Lexington, the University of Kentucky and Alltech, a Kentucky-based AgriTech leader.
“When we think of software development, we think of Silicon Valley. When we think of advances in health care, we think of Boston,” said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles at a kickoff event. “We believe that Kentucky can step up to the challenges facing our agriculture communities and become the agriculture hub of technology and innovation in the United States.”
The Farm Goes Indoors
Among the more recent endorsements of Kentucky’s across-the-board strategy was the decision of 80 Acres Farms, a leading CEA startup based in Ohio, to locate its largest facility to date in Northern Kentucky’s Boone County. Through an investment of $74 million that’s to result in the creation of 125 jobs, 80 Acres has converted an existing 200,000-square-foot building into one of the largest indoor vertical farms in the country, first growing leafy greens with tomatoes and berries to follow.
“A lot of collaboration with Duke Energy, Boone County and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development brought this project to fruition,” said Lee Crume, president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the economic development organization that works to attain, retain and grow businesses in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.
Launched in 2017 in the rural town of Morehead, AppHarvest is a Kentucky-bred CEA business that recently marked the opening of its fourth indoor farm in Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian region. With more than 150 acres now under indoor cultivation, AppHarvest is providing more than 700 jobs. In January 2023, AppHarvest announced that it had delivered the first shipments of tomatoes from its newest, high-tech facility that covers 60 acres in Richmond.
In all, some 70 AgriTech startups and other companies are active in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. AgConnections, Smart Farm Systems, TapLogic and Silver Fern Group all have established footholds in the field of farm management software that helps make farms more efficient while reducing water usage. Kentucky AgriTech LLC in Louisville offers the Kentucky Best Bean Buyer app, which helps soybean farmers track fluctuating market prices. Headquartered in Lexington, Space Tango developed systems to study the growth of plants aboard the International Space Station.
“Kentucky can become the agriculture hub of technology and innovation in the United States.”
— Dr. Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner
For its part, Alltech has developed a global presence since its founding in Nicholasville in 1980. Now one of the world’s top animal feed businesses, Alltech employs more than 6,000 people in 120-plus countries and operates 31 production facilities worldwide. The business is a leading innovator in areas that include crop science, feed efficiency, antibiotic-free production, food enrichment and gut health.
Traditional farming is thriving in Kentucky, as well. Cash receipts surged in 2022 to an annual $8 billion, easily surpassing the record $6.9 billion of the previous year. Corn, which sustains the state’s signature bourbon industry, remains Kentucky’s top cash crop, having generated receipts of close to $1.5 billion in 2021. The steady stream of Kentucky corn powered bourbon to a record 2022, with 30 project announcements totaling some $2.18 billion dollars projected to create approximately 730 new jobs (see the cover story of this publication).
Kentucky’s poultry sector, which leads all other farm commodities, received a massive boost in 2022 when Tyson Foods broke ground on a $355 million bacon-producing facility in Bowling Green. The 400,000-square-foot operation at the recently expanded Kentucky Transpark is to integrate robotics and automation technologies to maximize production efficiencies, according to the company. The facility is to employ some 450 Kentuckians when it launches in 2023. On hand for the groundbreaking, Gov. Beshear hailed the project as “amazing news for the workforce throughout the region that builds on Tyson’s already impressive presence in our state.”
As a powerful inducement to major food manufacturers, Kentucky’s central location puts them within a day’s drive of more than two-thirds of the nation’s population. Four major ground and air shipping hubs anchor a robust logistics and distribution infrastructure that also includes abundant road and rail links and waterways.
Kroger, which operates more than 100 retail stores and four manufacturing and distribution centers in Kentucky, recently announced plans for a 50,000-square-foot e-commerce facility that’s to bring 161 jobs to Louisville. Bluegrass Supply Chain Services, a third-party logistics provider that serves food and beverage markets, is launching a $25 million warehousing operation that’s to create 110 full-time jobs in Bowling Green.
These investments and many others tell a story of AgriTech in Kentucky that includes a long tradition of success combined with an innovative future.