A Dutch greenhouse similar to the one AppHarvest is building in Kentucky.

by James Grizzell
Consulate General of the Netherlands in Chicago

Kentucky agriculture startup AppHarvest last week cut the ribbon on its new greenhouse, the largest in North America.

Controlled-environment agriculture and high-tech greenhouses like AppHarvest’s have made the Netherlands one of the world’s major food producers despite the country’s small size. AppHarvest’s new high-tech greenhouse leverages that experience, incorporating Dutch technology and expertise into everything from design and construction to monitoring and analytics.

The pandemic has underlined the need to build resilient food systems, and greenhouses can play a key role in strengthening supply chains.

A Wageningen University & Research report estimates the US market for high-tech greenhouse agriculture could be worth more than $10 billion when imports are substituted. The Commonwealth of Kentucky and AppHarvest are blazing a trail that the rest of the United States can follow.

The benefits of high-tech greenhouses

Dutch greenhouses use LEDs to grow food year-round.

Galvanized by the experience of the 1945 “Hunger Winter” famine, the Dutch became Europe’s premier growers of greenhouse produce.

Today, high-tech greenhouses play an important role in making the Netherlands one of the largest exporters of food in the world. Dutch-style greenhouses are characterized by their high level of automation, a high degree of active environmental control, integrated pest management, and efficient irrigation systems.

Dutch companies work across the entire controlled environment agriculture workflow, from project development to everyday operation of high-tech greenhouses.

Dutch companies design and build high-tech greenhouses. They develop the UV lighting solutions to stimulate plant growth. They create the tools and software to monitor and optimize plant yields. They provide seeds for produce growers. They design irrigation and water reuse systems to increase the sustainability of greenhouse growing.

From project conception to distribution of sustainable produce, Dutch companies offer it all.

Controlled environment agriculture in high-tech greenhouses increases produce yields, efficiently making use of land in a small, dense country. Through technology and improved recycling, water use is also greatly reduced. Crucial in light of pandemic-related disruptions, controlled environment agriculture strengthens the resiliency of food supply chains by enabling the local cultivation of produce.

Why and how Kentucky?

Many factors go into a successful high-tech greenhouse project: availability and topography of land, regular rainfall patterns, and a moderate climate to help cut down on energy costs.

Kentucky checks those boxes, and adds a large labor force and enthusiastic state government as well. Moreover, Kentucky is located within a one day’s drive of 70 percent of the country’s population, which will allow for a longer shelf life.

Jonathan Webb founded AppHarvest with the intention of turning Kentucky into an agricultural hub by bringing cutting-edge agricultural technology and best practices to the state.

With its deep expertise, the Netherlands was a natural partner. After a successful fundraising round and intense research missions, at the 2019 Global Entrepreneur Summit in the Netherlands, Minister Schouten announced a deal between AppHarvest and Dutch greenhouse builder Dalsem to construct the largest greenhouse ever manufactured by the company in Kentucky.

The day before the greenhouse was officially opened with a ribbon cutting in October 2020, AppHarvest broke ground on their second major greenhouse project in east Kentucky.

What’s next?

In June 2020, a coalition of businesses, knowledge institutes, and government from the Netherlands and Kentucky signed a collaboration agreement to build a controlled-environment AgTech ecosystem in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

While demand for sustainable greenhouse produce is growing in the United States and project financing increasingly available, a robust ecosystem bringing together business, education, and government is critical to long-term success.

In Kentucky, Dutch firms and knowledge institutes will set up local training infrastructure to build a regular pipeline of controlled-environment agriculture talent trained in cutting-edge Dutch greenhouse technology and techniques.

The consortium from the Netherlands will also share their expertise in cultivating retail partnerships for sustainable greenhouse produce, supply chain organization, and demand generation.

Ultimately, the establishment of a successful controlled-environment AgTech ecosystem in Kentucky will support good permanent jobs, generate shared prosperity, improve food security, and shrink the carbon footprint of American food production.