Why rural?

Features - Cover Story

In areas with rich agricultural histories, greenhouse owners make a push to support local labor and strengthen welcoming communities.

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Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms

Seeing an increase in consumer demand for fresh, local food, and municipalities that strive for economic development, greenhouses are opening locations in rural areas, hiring and providing for residents who have recently had trouble finding jobs.

Employment in areas that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) refers to as “metro” and “nonmetro,” (definitions are based on population density and labor-force commuting statistics) both took a nosedive in 2008 and 2009, but while metro employment rose above pre-recession levels by 2013 — and shot significantly higher by the second quarter of 2016 — nonmetro employment remained below pre-recession levels by the second quarter of 2016.

While the motivations behind greenhouse operators’ choices to locate in specific regions are complex, the decisions to move to rural areas often lead to mutually beneficial relationships with the local labor force and local government.

A camera from a drone looks down on the Kentucky Fresh Harvest build site in Stanford, Ky., in early March 2017. The company began work on the 30-acre site in January.
Photo courtesy of Trevor Terry

A living wage and healthcare

BrightFarms, a lettuce, leafy greens, herbs and tomato grower founded in 2011, operates three greenhouses — one in Rochelle, Ill., another in Culpeper County, Va., and another in Bucks County, Pa. — and has recently acquired land in Clinton County, Ohio, where it plans to soon break ground on another greenhouse. CEO Paul Lightfoot considers all four greenhouse locations rural, except for Bucks County. (OMB defines Culpeper County as metro, but the Census tract where BrightFarms’ greenhouse is located is considered “rural” by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy.)

A culmination of factors played into Lightfoot and his team’s decision to locate in rural areas. Originally, he says, he thought the company would settle in more urban locales, but acquiring land in cities is expensive; government approval processes in cities are slow; and, if placed strategically, rural greenhouse locations can provide local food to city centers quickly without these and other hassles. Despite their rurality, BrightFarms’ Culpeper County location is within tens of miles of the District of Columbia, and its Rochelle location is within tens of miles of Chicago.

Each of BrightFarms’ greenhouses employ about 30 people full-time, and all employees receive a living wage and healthcare, Lightfoot says. “We don’t have a hard time finding labor, generally, in these markets, because jobs aren’t that easy to come by in these markets,” he says.

At each greenhouse operation, about three employees are required to have a certain background or skillset, Lightfoot says. But, he says, “the lion’s share of the people can have done anything. They just need to be able to show up on time, be mindful, understand our mission, align with our mission and work hard.”

Haim Oz, CEO of Kentucky Fresh Harvest
Photo courtesy of Trevor Terry

Many of BrightFarms’ hires have been veterans, whom the company’s leadership hires, in part because of the leadership and discipline they have built through their time in the military. “What we’ve found is that a lot of these people don’t necessarily have a clear path and maybe feel a little bit lost,” Lightfoot says. “Working in a greenhouse feels great for them. It’s actually been a great path for a lot of veterans.”

Between 2011 and 2015, the 66 percent employment rate of U.S. rural veterans was lower than both the 67.7 percent employment rate for rural nonveterans and the 70.7 percent employment rate for urban veterans, according to the United States Census Bureau. “Employed rural veterans, however, were more likely to work full time and year-round than rural nonveterans (81.6 percent compared with 71.5 percent),” the U.S. Census Bureau states.

Now, BrightFarms seeks to expand to rural locations all over the country, Lightfoot says. “We’re looking for good matches, and we’d be thrilled to hear of more Culpepers and Rochelles and Clinton Counties that want us, because we want to be places where we’re wanted, [and] where we can get help from the municipalities in finding land and local leaders and things like that,” he says.

Jonathan Webb, CEO of AppHarvest, plans to build a greenhouse on a reclaimed mine site in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Webb

Hiring in the heart of coal country

In Appalachian Kentucky, where coal and the related industries of manufacturing and construction once thrived, greenhouse operators are prioritizing adding new fuel to local economies.

Kentucky Fresh Harvest, an industry newcomer helmed by Israeli farmer and businessman Haim Oz, plans to employ approximately 75 people to grow, harvest, package and ship produce full-time in 2018, when it completes the first phase of its first project, says marketing and communications manager Trevor Terry. In January, the company began site work on its 30-acre facility in Stanford, Ky., where it plans to produce high-wire vegetable crops, beginning with small fruited tomatoes.

The unemployment rate in Lincoln County, where Stanford is the county seat, was 5.6 percent in April 2017 — higher than the national average of 4.4 percent that same month, but lower than the county’s unemployment peak of 14.8 percent in February 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (The national unemployment average peaked at 10 percent in 2009.)

“We are committed to hiring local folks first,” Terry says. “There’s a lot of people in Kentucky and Lincoln County who want a chance to build a career on agriculture. Many have grown up working on their own family farms just down the road from KFH. They’re looking to find a sustainable career close to home, to get back to their roots, and to gain valuable work experience within a growing industry.”

The decline of the coal industry over the past decade has had a detrimental impact on former Appalachian miners, manufacturers and construction workers who lost their jobs, Terry says. Despite taking such significant losses, manufacturing and construction companies are some of the top employers in Lincoln County. But, Terry says, that doesn’t mean those industries can sustain everyone in the area.

High-tech greenhouse production, he says, can provide a much-needed boost for the agriculture industry, which, until recently, provided some stability to rural Kentucky. “Traditionally, agriculture has been a major economic driver in the area (tobacco, beef, grain production, etc.) but since 2015 these commodities have suffered from the effects of excess supply, volatile weather conditions, and depressed pricing due to international trade,” Terry says. “Last year, Kentucky’s net farm income fell to its lowest level since 2010 due to these and other factors.”

Kentucky Fresh Harvest wants to add value to the net farm income and provide year-round jobs, Terry shares. With the new agribusiness company Green Ag Technologies, Oz and the leaders behind Kentucky Fresh Harvest are looking at opportunities for other projects beyond the Stanford operation, throughout Appalachia and the United States.

Garnering investor and government interest

Imagine a 1.8 million square-foot greenhouse on top of a reclaimed surface mine site on a mountaintop that attracts people from surrounding communities, pumps music and offers night and weekend computer coding classes. That’s what Jonathan Webb, a native Kentuckian who works in large-scale solar development, aims to build in Pikeville, Ky., with his startup AppHarvest. And upon completion of a first greenhouse, he wants to build more of them.

Webb will be the first to admit that there’s an inherent symbolism in literally building on top of a former mine site, but AppHarvest has support from people in the coal industry and long-time supporters of coal who are excited about other, sustainable revitalization opportunities. “Everybody is in support of what we’re doing because we’re using former coal mine land that has no value to it right now; it’s just sitting there,” Webb says. “We’ve taken what has already been utilized and now we’re putting the Lamborghini of greenhouses on top of it.”

Webb and his team have some more details to hash out, but they soon plan to break ground on the Pikeville greenhouse. “We’ve got a lot of options on the table on how we’re going to power this thing,” Webb says. “With [solar development] being my background, we’re pretty excited on what that’s going to look like. We’ve been exploring both CHP [combined heat and power] and solar.”

Also on the technological front are AppHarvest’s planned employee coding classes. The company aims to work with software companies, such as developer Bit Source, which uses the slogan “Coal to Code,” to determine how greenhouse operations can innovate and remain efficient, Webb says.

Webb estimates 140 new jobs offering a minimum of $13 an hour upon the first greenhouse opening. He explains that “we don’t have time” to start small and expand, citing the 50,000 people, including the 10,000 in eastern Kentucky — who have lost jobs due to coal’s decline. This all caught the attention of Gov. Matt Bevin, who, in his February announcement of AppHarvest’s ambitious project, cited its potential for job creation.

Webb says he has been coordinating with Bevin’s staff, and has also gained the support of U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, also of Kentucky. Meanwhile, Michael Chasen, CEO of commercial drone company PrecisionHawk, and co-founder and former CEO of online learning platform Blackboard Inc., advises the startup. AppHarvest is privately financed, but will receive a tax credit from the state.

In eastern Kentucky, as elsewhere, the coal industry helped fund schools, city water and garbage pickup via tax dollars, so communities have been “absolutely devastated” by the industry’s downturn, Webb says. Sustainable agriculture and high-tech greenhouses, he says, can aid in some of the revival efforts. “It’s not going to be the only solution, but it needs to be a part of the solution,” he says. “We need to aggressively get in there and build.”