"Greenwashing" Doesn't Work: Jonathan Webb, Founder & CEO, AppHarvest
On today's show, AppHarvest Founder & CEO Jonathan Webb talks about AgTech (agriculture tech), the third wave of sustainable infrastructure. We talk about how, at current rates of production, we'll need two earths to provide the needed supply of food by 2050 -- and about how Jonathan is tackling that plus other systemic issues like hunger despite supply.
Enjoy! Full transcript below.
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Adam Conner: [00:00:00] The world is running out of food. And I have a conversation with the one person who might just save us on this Authentic Avenue.
AppHarvest. A leader in agricultural technology and the third wave of sustainable infrastructure. I'm on with their founder and CEO, Jonathan Webb. And together, we talk about the problem yet to come. That is declining food supply relative to the world's need. We talk about how he stepped into this third wave.
After watching the first two, pass him by. And how now he stands at the precipice of AgTech and what ag. And what AppHarvest is doing to get 30 to 50 times the juice from the squeeze of a farm. We of course cover authenticity as well as everything that goes into filling a supply gap, whether it be meeting the world's need or feeding the needy.
This is a critically important issue, which doesn't get enough publicity, but as something which will affect everybody in the next 30 to 50 years, you'll hear Jonathan talk about how it will eventually need to Earth's at the current rate and efficiency of production to feed ourselves. And so I encourage you to listen in as to how he is helping and tell you can do your small part, even in your apartment, more on that in the show, which I'll let you hear now.
So sit back, relax and enjoy. As I get real with AppHarvest. And Jonathan Webb. Jonathan, how are you?
Jonathan Webb: [00:01:30] Nice to talk to you. Doing great, Adam. How about yourself?
Adam Conner: [00:01:33] I'm doing really, really well. I'm so glad to chat with you at this specific moment, because just in the last few weeks I have developed maybe not the green thumb that you have maybe a fingernail.
I've been able to, uh, put a little planter box outside, I'm growing a couple of things, and I've just started reading about hydroponics because I live in an apartment and I don't have a hundred acres of land to do this on. So this world of sustainable farming is incredibly interesting and the stars aligned and put us in touch with each other.
Now you are at the forefront of AgTech, which is a new word that I even learned through this. Let's start there. I want, I want to learn about. Coming to found AppHarvest, maybe via the demise of a couple of other industries that you saw in real time. And this third wave of sustainability that you describe AgTech being.
Jonathan Webb: [00:02:25] Yeah, sure. So my background, uh, I grew up in Kentucky, uh, Kentucky and West Virginia, where two of the largest coal producing states in the us. Um, and, uh, what I. I ended up moving out of the state and, and spent about 10 years in New York city in DC and pursued a career in renewable energy. And I was a part of building some of the largest solar projects in the U S uh, before founding AppHarvest.
So a background in energy, uh, large scale, sustainable development, what was my skill set and really seeing the decline of the coal industry, uh, while the renewable energy industry took off wildly. Uh, is, is w was a unique vantage point that I had. I mean, there weren't a whole lot of people that, that, you know, were from, I would say, a coal region that we're in the renewable energy industry.
Um, and I brought that over to agriculture and that viewpoint of, of rapid change and disruption, uh, and how quickly it can move, uh, is something that I think uniquely positioned us here at AppHarvest to, to be able to, uh, help, help revolutionize American farming. Uh, but in essence, what we're doing, uh, here at AppHarvest is we're building some of the world's largest controlled environment, agriculture facilities, uh, we're using technology and infrastructure to grow a lot more food with a lot less resources.
Uh, and an example of this is our flagship facility in Morehead, Kentucky, uh, nearly 60 acres under roof. Uh, we're, we're growing tomatoes with 90%, less water than open field agriculture, getting about 30 times yield per acre. Uh, and we're not using the harsh chemical pesticides. So using technology to grow a lot more food with a lot less resources.
Uh, and I'll say you, you mentioned that third wave of sustainable infrastructure, and we believe 10 years ago it was renewable energy. Uh, 20 years ago it was renewable energy. 10 years ago. It was electric vehicles. Uh, and, and Tesla, when public that they're really helped move the needle there. And then now it's controlled environment agriculture, uh, using technology to grow more food with less resources.
Adam Conner: [00:04:37] You know, it's amazing that just now I feel like solar and EVs having a moment. And that's just the second wave as you described, which means you are really on the front edge. And Hey, it doesn't hurt that you're able to do way way more with less in terms of space, obviously, as you grow in space, that means that you become a very, very large producer, but I'm curious as somebody who has, you know, brought this third wave about in, in a state and in an area which has mostly been upheld by, let's say those, those earlier forms of energy.
Um, it must be a unique journey now producing something almost too good to be true. But I guess tech does that, uh, in all walks of life and it tackles a problem, which is soon to be, but perhaps we're not all seeing it or perhaps it doesn't publicize as much as it should be. And that's food supply. When you started this, you saw that as a problem.
When you, you told me earlier that maybe 0.1% of people believed you and some thought you were crazy, but who what's common about the folks who joined along with you? And saw this as a problem as you did so early on.
Jonathan Webb: [00:05:42] Yeah. It it's really hard for us as, as humans to be long-term thinkers. I mean, I think.
Just innately the way we're wired is survival. And most of that is just day to day and we're really living in the moment. Um, but you know, w we, as, as, as a world really need to be looking 10, 20, 30 years out, uh, and making sure we're planning, uh, you know, on the horizon. And part of that, you know, you look at food supply globally.
Uh, the UN, uh, United nations has predicted. We need 50 to 70% more food by 2050 in order to get 70% more food, we would need two planet Earths to have enough land and water. The way we currently grow food in order to feed that population by 2050. This is in less than 30 years. I mean, we're not talking about 300 years from now or a hundred years from now.
We're talking in less than 30 years. Uh, the United nations has said to get to over 9 billion people in a rising middle class. And we would, we would need 70% more food in essence to planet earth to grow that food. So, uh, that's the problem. Uh, and the solution is using technology to grow far more food with, with far less resources.
Uh, and again, in controlled environment agriculture, we can, we can solve that problem. Uh, and it's going to take the private sector leading. It's going to take consumers, you know, voting with their dollar at the grocery store. Uh, regulators, uh, as they do, we'll get involved over time and, and you know, what, what is a fairly boutique industry today is has got to be a large, uh, large, uh, industry player in the next 10 to 15 years.
If we're going to, if we're going to meet the targets, we need to meet over the next 30.
Adam Conner: [00:07:33] It seems that quite literally, for all our sake, we need these, as you say, boutique worlds now to be invested in with the same vigor, as let's say. Interplanetary travel is being teased right now. I don't think in 30 to 50 years time, we'll have that second planet earth as much as people would like to fly elsewhere.
So we need to do something about it right now. And you are providing the tech to help us get there with what we've got. Let me ask you something real quick because producing a lot more, uh, I should say good for you food. Um, and the reason I say that is because it grows out of the ground with all the pesticides that you said does that.
How does that mesh with like the big CPG providers that would prefer people just to eat a bunch more like corn products and byproducts. I mean, have you run into that as a barrier to the sort of investment and granted, they probably got lobbyists all over the government, things like that, because I'm wondering that it could be a really interesting foil to their business model, but at the same time they might, they might also need you for more of their own supply.
So could you help break that down for me?
Jonathan Webb: [00:08:38] Yeah. I mean, with every business and in 2021 it's innovate or die. I mean, there's no question, you know, Sears being the largest retailer in the world and, you know, virtually non-existent today is an example of how quickly, you know, things shift and, um, you know, you look at the food companies today and don't need to name names that.
You know, are putting products onto American plates that are frankly poisoning the American people and hard on the planet. You know, high fructose corn syrup, high sugary, uh, food, uh, harsh chemicals on the food, harsh chemicals in the food, highly processed. Uh, you know, this is very reminiscent of an industry in the 1970s that we called the tobacco industry.
And how did that play out? So, you know, uh, it's some point, you know, the, the. Innovation must disrupt, uh, current business models to better align with people and planet it. History repeats itself. It's happened in other sectors. It'll continue to happen as the world evolves. Uh, and we need food companies to give real healthy food options that are good for both people and planet.
Uh, you, you, you, you look at the U S today and you know, many people would argue healthcare is going to bankrupt this country. If we continue on this course, uh, and it can't just be about, you know, what are we doing when somebody is sick? It needs to be. What are we doing to prevent people from getting sick?
Uh, and food has got to be a part of the conversation. If we're going to reign in our, our rapidly growing healthcare costs. If we're, if we're going to get a healthy population, uh, we need to make fresh, healthy food affordable and available for every American. Uh, and obviously the big food companies that, that stock our shelves, uh, have, have a key role to play.
And, you know, my argument to this would be. It doesn't mean they have to go out of business. It doesn't mean, you know, it's, it's doom and gloom and it's a fast track to bankruptcy. Uh, but what it does mean is they need to be a part of the solution and we need to work together to get good, healthy food options on the store shelves.
You know, by the end of next year, AppHarvest, we'll be selling strawberries, a whole host of leafy greens, a variety of different tomatoes, uh, high nutrient density products that are good and healthy that don't have the harsh chemical pesticides that you see. Uh, on food today. And, and again, whatever we can do to be a team player, would that overall food and ag ecosystem, you know, we're raising our hand and saying, we want to collaborate.
We want to be held awful, but you know, those living like, you know, it's 1992 and things aren't going to ever change, uh, that is, that is not a good long-term trajectory for that company. And, you know, any CEO or management team that you know is running large food and ag companies globally, uh, The conversations I have or, or don't feel it, the trends recognize the trends, recognize the consumer trends and just pivot your business to evolve.
And, and that's. That's happened decade after decade after decade that, you know, ultimately it's, it's the management team's job to position the company to ensure that it's not just successful today. Uh, but it's relevant. And in successful 10 to 20 years from now, and those consumer trends in food are rapidly evolving and it's our job to meet those consumer demands.
Adam Conner: [00:12:14] Well to meet those demands and ultimately proactively solve some problems, which I will talk about in just a second, because it's more than just filling a supply gap as you, as you rightly noted. Let me ask you this because I always am looking for everyone's unique definition to the, a word and a word that I pursue here is authenticity.
You've talked about a couple of things just in that last answer, which may cater well to it, which is why I'm doing it next. Now one definition of authenticity in the world of food, of course, is something that's organic. That's real, that's not hampered by the pesticides, which plagues a lot of food today.
But I'm talking about your take on that word, given your journey here at AppHarvest, if you had to staple a definition to that word, what would it be? And then I want to talk about a few ways in which you manifest it.
Jonathan Webb: [00:12:59] Yeah, so authenticity. Well, it's something that incredibly loud here at AppHarvest. We, um, you know, we lead with trust and transparency and authenticity.
Um, you know, w here's an example of this. We, we had a journalist that was on our farm earlier today for about an hour or two hours. Uh, You look at gag laws in the U S and many large agriculture facilities. Won't let journalists on their farms. They won't let journalists inside their operating facilities.
You know, we've challenged that completely. If you look at a lot of my interviews, they're held directly inside of our facility. Now, what we're trying to show is we're authentic. We're genuine. We, you know, we want to show the consumer, here's the way we're operating. We're not saying we're perfect, but we're trying every day to get better and better, you know, again, Every employee here has full health care, uh, paying a living wage, you know, not using harsh chemical pesticides on our, on our fruits and vegetables, uh, being authentic, uh, true and genuine.
Uh, ultimately that's, that's what consumers are looking for the consumers in 2021 and going forward. Yeah, greenwashing doesn't work, you know, advertising, you know, the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s, isn't going to work. You know, consumers are incredibly intelligent. They can see through it. Uh, and technology is forcing transparency.
Like we've never seen before. And at this point, brands just need to be authentic. They need to be genuine. They need to be true to whatever it is they represent and don't hide behind any of it. And that's where, you know, here at AppHarvest. No a motto in this region is faith and grit. And, and we, you know, we believe we're defined by, you know, the faith and grit that we drive forward with every day.
And, you know, we, we wear the authenticity very, very firmly on, on our, on our, uh, on our sleeves. As we, as we move forward every day here.
Adam Conner: [00:15:01] I'll tell you what, I've never heard that greenwashing word much less a view on it, which of course is that it doesn't work. And it makes sense to me. How many times have I heard recently of a food company or service or anything like that promoting clean health, you know, or, or, or any company just saying that they're being green with what they're doing?
You know? Um, it leaves me to wonder God, if everybody's saying it, is anybody doing it? Is it just marketing jargon? Is it something to. Posture rather than to then to protect. And I'm glad that you're the first person you've ever said that especially given the industry that you're in. So let me ask you then about, uh, about your purpose in solving these problems.
As I said, I would mentioned before, because. Of course, if healthcare does not bankrupt the United States, it's because people have found ways to not only be more efficient reactively, but also proactive and figure out ways to put people out of those positions in which they would be unduly burdened by the healthcare system.
And in that way at parvus is doing a great deal of good to help close the supply gap that has been previewed to exist. Um, in that two Earth's scenario that you brought up a worst case. But I'm wondering if at the other end of the spectrum, it's also helping those for whom a supply gap is irrelevant because they can't get the food that is currently out there talking about solving hunger.
And I'm curious if that's another one of your goals. Is that something that you're doing together with fulfilling the supply gap? Is it, is it a supply gap for those who can't get it, plus those who won't be able to get it 50 years from now? I'm curious because it just, it goes hand in hand in my head.
Jonathan Webb: [00:16:40] Yeah. Better food for all is, is certainly a motto that we have.
And. Um, it's something that we live by and actions speak louder than words. Part of that is our first shipment of, of our first harvest, uh, was earlier this year in January. And the first thing we did was drive up the road to a food bank, uh, and donate our first tomatoes, uh, to, to the local food bank and central Appalachia.
And, and that to us was, was not only proved to. Our our team, but also our supporters and stakeholders to show people, you know, yes, we're eager to get our tomatoes out to market, and now we're selling to Kroger, Costco Wendy's. Uh, but we were most excited about being able to donate our first harvest, uh, to people in need.
And, uh, it's something that we have to work on. We, we, as a country, we're the largest economy in the world. There is no reason that any child. Or any family is going to bed hungry at night in the us. And we, we have enough resources in this country, uh, if we continue to work together, uh, but you, you started, uh, the segment here saying that, uh, you're looking to grow your own apartment and it that's something we strongly believe in.
We we've invested heavily in high school education, uh, here in Eastern Kentucky. We're encouraging young people to grow. We're providing technology at five different high schools right now, uh, where they can grow leafy greens year round, uh, in a, in a container farm using software and sensors and led lights.
But they're taking those leafy greens home. They're taking them into the cafeteria. And anyone I talked to, uh, I try to encourage grow in your backyard, grow, get led lights and a hydroponic system grow in your living room or on your patio or on your porch. You know, this is something we can all do and we can be empowered, you know, to take control of our own food supply.
And, and, you know, there are plenty of studies out that show. You know, getting people to buy in and invest in a little bit, uh, even if they're growing in some small scale, having that connection to food, uh, is, is, can be incredibly, uh, incredibly impactful on every individual's life. Uh, whether you're growing that food and then giving it away to your neighbors or eating it, uh, in the evening on your own, uh, your own kitchen table.
Um, again, there, there is no reason why, uh, in 2021 living in the United States and the largest economy in the world, we have any child or family going home hungry at night. Uh, and again, it's, it's something our company takes very seriously. Uh, and, and we're, we're in a small way helpful today. Uh, and in the years ahead, we, we definitely want to be a stronger player on, on helping solve for, for global food insecurity.
Adam Conner: [00:19:40] And so listeners, I mean, you heard it right there. This is something that you can do in your apartment right now via something called hydroponics or aquaponics. I think they're interchangeable, but either way, um, it's something that can, a YouTube could be like the world's first or the most recent and smallest fruit and vegetable producers right there, right there in your room.
And I've been thinking about doing that myself, you know, funny enough. I saw it from a Tik TOK, which was weird, but then I thought, oh, this is, this is timely because I was talking to you. And it's good because from me the potential smallest producer out there to you, whose goal is to be number one, the number one fruit and vegetable producer in the entire world, um, is the current.
Struggle for home buyers to find and build new property, uh, reflected in the AgTech world. Is that a bottleneck for you as well? Because there's plenty of land out there, probably less fertile land to beyond, and after all you need to then get that land and then develop it. So how is that goal of being number one, rubbing up against that potential friction of land availability and, uh, and build speed.
Jonathan Webb: [00:20:45] We have a lot of land in central Appalachia. And I invite everyone on the coast to come move into the region and, you know, buy, buy, buy a house, a home, a cabin. Uh, but unfortunately we don't have that same problem here that you're seeing in many of the metropolitan areas where, uh, We don't have the massive, uh, housing boom in central Appalachia that you see in a New York city or an Austin or, or other places around the country right now.
Uh, so we do have a lot of available land, uh, but more importantly, in central Appalachia, we have record amounts of rainfall. And if you look at what a fruit and vegetable is, 95% of a fruit and vegetable is water. Know, what we're doing here is building facilities, collecting that rain, water, packaging up that rainwater into a fruit and vegetable, and then shipping it out to major markets.
So, uh, yes, we have land and we have plenty for the foreseeable future to be able to build facilities. Uh, but maybe, and most importantly, we have record amounts of rainfall. Uh, one other thing I would throw out is, uh, the Netherlands. Is the second larger largest export or globally of agriculture products.
The Netherlands is a third, the size of Kentucky and landmass. So. Th th the country only behind the U S the U S leading, uh, the Netherlands second largest global exporter of food is a third, the size of Kentucky. Why? Because they're using a lot of technology, uh, to grow a lot more food with a lot less resources.
So there is a country that's already figured this out. You know what we're doing here at AppHarvest, just trying to be at the cutting edge of what's possible. Uh, but we're looking to our European partners and specifically the Netherlands, uh, who's already grown a lot more food with a lot less resources, which means we don't need as much land, uh, to build and operate our facilities.
And one example of this, I would say is our 60 acre facility in Morehead. Kentucky can do the equivalent of almost 2000 acres of open field production in California or Mexico. That doesn't include the 40% food waste that we have in the U S so it's really, we on a 60 acre farm in Maura, Kentucky can do about the equivalent of 3000 acres of production, uh, in California or Mexico.
Adam Conner: [00:23:05] They need your infrastructure out there really. Um, and I'm glad that you could do, I mean, that is just a striking number. Uh, about what you're able to do. And Hey, when it comes to having that land and expanding what you do have there in Kentucky, it's worth noting that to listeners today. The day this is launching Monday, the 21st two new groundbreakings will be happening, uh, in Kentucky, uh, AppHarvest, we'll be growing their foot print right there.
So Jonathan I've really appreciated your, your expertise here so far. And I'd love to close with the question I ask everybody, which is around. Your advice. You have built this company from the ground up after foreseeing this third wave of sustainable infrastructure, watching the first two pass, seeing legacy industries die before you and now are hoping to solve problems, which are bigger than any individual, any country, any body at all, along the way, you have built this authentic journey, authentic story and position on the word, which I now turn as a question to our listeners on behalf of you.
What advice can you give to our listeners as to how to find their own personal truth or their version of authenticity?
Jonathan Webb: [00:24:16] Well, I come from a pretty humble background, you know, typical average, uh, American life, uh, growing up in middle America. Uh, parents have high school degrees and I went to public schools and, uh, went to our public university, the university of Kentucky, uh, Uh, my journey over the last few years, taking AppHarvest public on the NASDAQ, we raised nearly $500 million this year, uh, would have never thought this journey would remotely possible.
The world needs authenticity. Uh, and don't run from your past to try to redefine yourself into what you think the world wants to see whether it's investors, whether it's consumers, whether it's regulators. In a post COVID world. Uh, we need companies that are aligning with people, aligning with the planet, creating solutions that are better for everyone.
And you know, that authenticity is, you know, what would your grandmother or grandfather want you to do? What, what would your parents want to see you become, what are your kids or grandkids want to see from you? You know, what that resonate inside of your professional career? Uh, our world desperately needs more authentic authenticity.
It needs more vulnerability, you know, more CEOs, more management teams, uh, that are willing to, to wear their heart, uh, out front every day. I can tell you it's exhausting. Uh, it's a roller coaster in order to be fully engaged all day every day, uh, with your entry-level employee, uh, all the way up to your board members.
Uh, and, and, and consumers and regulators, uh, it's hard to be authentic all the time, every day. Uh, but our world needs more authentic leaders and, and to anyone listening and thinking, you know, uh, should I push the needle? Yes, you should. You know, life is short. Uh, this life we've seen in the middle of COVID is incredibly fragile.
Uh, and what we need now more than ever in the private sector is more people that are willing to have principles, have values, be authentic, and stand firm on those principles and values. Uh, and if anyone questions, uh, is it worthwhile in the long run, you can look at the AppHarvest story and you can see it's one small example of what's possible.
I will say that anyone leaning into that direction, you know, we're, we're a public benefit corporation. And we're a B Corp. If you don't know what that is, look it up and try desperately to position your company to be both of those. Uh, our world needs more public benefit corporations and more B Corp's. Uh, and those are just, uh, those are byproducts of ultimately leading an authentic organization.
So, you know, thank you for having me, uh, the discussion here I believe is important and I hope to some of your listeners, they'll, they'll find it valuable in some way.
Adam Conner: [00:27:12] I think they certainly will. And on behalf of them, and I guess previewing 30 to 50 years out on behalf of all the humans out there.
Thanks for doing what you're doing. I hope you continue to lean into authenticity pushing that needle, as you said, and I appreciate the half hour you've given me here.
Jonathan Webb: [00:27:25] Thanks Adam. More. We're all in this together. Let's continue the conversation and build better businesses. Thank you
Adam Conner: [00:27:32] For everybody listening to this show, I would encourage you to see how you can, even at the smallest of scales.
Grow your own food and you can do it right in your apartment. I've been thinking about it again, hydroponics, aquaponics, anything. If you Google search that will let you in on this new world and for introducing us to that new world, Jonathan, thank you very much for joining the show and thanks to you. The listener for tuning in here's, where else you can find me LinkedIn, Authentic Avenue and Adam Conner.
You can follow both of those and you can email me, Adam at. Auth av.com. If you're getting started on your podcasting journey as a business or a public figure, I can sure. Help you out. And with that onto the next one, I'll be back again, talking about authenticity real soon until that time I've been Adam Conner saying until the next time I get real again with you.
Thanks for taking a walk with me down Authentic Avenue.