FarmBot … or BotFarm? When the entire farm becomes a robot …

Can an entire farm be a complex multi-component robot? According to AppHarvest CTO Josh Lessing … sure.

Kind of.

AppHarvest builds greenhouses that know what’s happening. Can control light. Control fertilizer and irrigation. Even control pollination, and when is the right time to harvest the crop. Plus, of course, actually harvest the crop by robot.

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In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat about the future of farming … and there’s a lot of technology involved.

Achieving 20-100X better productivity with 70% less water and far less CO2 emission is key. So is the development of Virgo, a universal picking robot that is designed to emulate the flexibility and control of a human hand for soft crops like tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers.

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And … get the full transcript of my conversation with AppHarvest CTO Josh Lessing

John Koetsier: Welcome, Josh!

Josh Lessing: Good afternoon! 

John Koetsier: [Laughing] Good morning for me, but hey, good afternoon wherever you might be. Tell us, what is AppHarvest? 

Josh Lessing: So AppHarvest is an advanced agtech company focused on controlled environment farming.

So, unbeknownst to many people, a lot of the foods that you buy these days are coming out of unbelievably advanced Dutch forms of growing technology — ways of sheltering crops from harsh weather, from climate change; ways of producing crops year round; ways of doing it very sustainably — and what we’re doing here at AppHarvest is both deploying that technology around the world and making our own substantial contributions so that the world can get what it truly needs, which is a decentralized food supply that’s resilient. 

John Koetsier: So, this is very cool. I mean, the amount of technology that is going into farming right now — the AI, the robotics, everything that’s going into it — is incredible. I want to get into that.

I want to talk about what you’re building, what it looks like, how it works, how you’re using robots and everything else. It’s going to make a lot more sense if we kind of understand who you are.

Give us the three-minute background on Josh. 

Josh Lessing, CTO of AppHarvest

Josh Lessing: Yeah. So, as far as my background goes, I’ve done a lot of different things in my science and engineering career, but … the way it’s always worked is I’ve always wanted to build things that had meaningful impact, and kind of found the problems that I thought were interesting and worked backwards from there.

So I started off the beginning of my research and engineering career in industrial catalysis, you know, how can we make a cleaner world by finding new ways of getting to refine chemicals and materials that we need in our lives through things that are not oil. From there, I was extremely interested in different advanced materials that you could use to create body armor and synthetic tissues for transplants — that was actually what I did my doctorate in.

And then after that, I started getting into a lot of unconventional robotics, material science serving robotics, and it was like I actually kind of fell backwards into the food space. I never thought that I would ever end up being like a food industry guy, but it was so aligned with what my goals were personally, which is to take charge of making sure that advanced technologies made it out to the world where they could change people’s lives. And so I helped start a company called Soft Robotics, where we were making advanced robotic technologies that can make food packaging and processing facilities more resilient, cleaner, safer.

And I started spending a lot of time in the food industry and I have to say that I was … I mean, for lack of a better word, appalled by how little technology is being used in our food supply. And when you take a step back, there isn’t — you know, there’s housing, there’s food, and then there’s medicine. These are the things that we need to survive. And a lot of engineers and scientists, they spend their careers after they get — they really commit their minds to being innovators, doing things like figuring out how to get an iPhone to take a night selfie. Right? That’s nice and all, but it’s not a calling.

And that’s almost a decade ago, that’s when I started to become incredibly passionate about the kinds of technologies that exist in other industries that could be brought to the food industry and build a safer world.

And then simultaneously, what are the new things that we can invent?

And so AppHarvest is kind of a remarkable summation of everything that I’m interested in, everything that people who are watching this should take a deep interest in themselves, which is: how do we make food that is right next to the cities where we consume them, always comes out of that facility healthy, like clockwork, increasing access to food? And, you know, this is something that in the Netherlands they’ve done through advanced technology. And it’s something that at AppHarvest we are both crafting to an international use case and something that we’re refining and expanding upon every day. 

John Koetsier: Well it’s interesting that you mentioned the Netherlands. My parents immigrated to Canada — where I live right now, Vancouver, Canada — from the Netherlands, so I’m by heritage Dutch.

It’s interesting because it’s a tiny country, 17 million people or something like that, second largest exporter of agricultural goods globally. Amazing! The U.S. is the first, by the way.

Walk us inside an AppHarvest farm. What do we see? What’s different? What do we look at? How is it not just a greenhouse? What’s automated there? And what’s sensing the environment and providing things that plants need? 

Josh Lessing: So, yeah, so it’s a great question. A lot of people when they think of a greenhouse, I think there’s about one of two things that come to mind, right? There’s that ‘I went to the garden store and there’s that greenhouse extension on the building’—

John Koetsier: It’s hot and humid in there [laughing] … exactly. 

Josh Lessing: Or it’s ‘I am at my grandma’s house and she has this tiny little like polyethylene hut thingy in the backyard where there’s a couple of small potted plants.’ And that’s not the modern world of greenhouse.

Modern greenhouses are utterly jaw-dropping. You know, you could go into a building that — think about this, a building that could be … I’ve seen ones that are 30 acres. I’ve seen ones that are 100 acres. I’ve been in ones that are 200 acres of building. And what’s inside that building?

The building itself is like a robot, frankly.

You’re able to control how much illumination the crop gets. You’re able to control the temperature of the crop. You’re able to control the fertigation work — water-infused nutrients. You are able to control the pollination in that there’s an entire ecosystem of bees in there that pollinate the crops. You’re able to manage pest pressures, where at AppHarvest we drive towards no harsh herbicides or pesticides because we have an entire ecosystem of good bugs that fight all of the bad bugs.

And in so many different ways, it is this beautifully refined growing environment. That’s how you get, depending upon the crop, 20 to 100 times the productivity per square meter where these facilities use 90% less water, where what we’re doing at our facilities we’re also using rainwater to get that water. So, no net impact on the fresh water supply.

Keep in mind that 70% of the water supply right now is going to agriculture. Agriculture has a huge CO2 footprint where, you know as well, it’s one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions at a greenhouse.

You can pair a greenhouse with an industrial environment, take the CO2 coming off of that facility, power plant or — actually it’s a really good example — and just sequester the carbon that’s coming out of that power plant, and get this circular economy where the waste heat and CO2 of a production environment is making your food. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. You take in the CO2, you pump out oxygen and food. Now, your background is in robotics, significantly and heavily. What robots are you using at AppHarvest?

Josh Lessing: So the facility itself, as I’ve mentioned, was a robot in the sense that we have sensors, motors, controlled behaviors of the entire building — that’s the first level.

We’re also using a harvesting robot that we call Virgo, it’s the world’s first universal harvesting robot. So it’s a robot designed on a human body plan. So, by that I mean the linkages of a human arm, finger dexterity … they can reach into a crop. We use it predominantly for tomato harvesting but it also works on things like strawberry harvesting, cucumber harvesting.

And that’s an internally developed system. We’re also using a lot of technology from our partners, things like robot pollinators. So, a robotic replacement for bees — there’s a lot of reasons why that’s very interesting. 

John Koetsier: Wow!

Josh Lessing: We’re using autonomous ground vehicles so that when I harvest fruit on the back 30 acres that drives in a ground vehicle all the way back to the pack house. It’s packed immediately so that it can stay fresh.

Across the whole facility we’re experimenting with all different kinds of autonomy more broadly, whether that be autonomy in the form of where software touches the physical world of robots, or autonomy in kind of mining data, gaining insights, and controlling behaviors at the facilities … with different applications of AI.

John Koetsier: Super interesting. You’ve got a massive facility in — I’m going to say this wrong. I’m going to say Appalachia [Appa-LAY-shuh] and I know that the right way is Appalachia [Appa-LATCH-uh]. There we go, Appalachia, throwing an apple at you. We got told that, so [laughing] you have a big facility there. Why? 

Josh Lessing: So it’s a strategic — look, there’s a lot of different reasons, but one of the major ones is how strategic the location is.

So, Kentucky, West Virginia … if you start drawing on a map, you know, where is 70% of the U.S. population? It’s within one day’s trucking of where our farms are.

And simultaneously, a substantial portion of the U.S. population is at its tail end of the supply chain for status-quo farming.

We import a lot of food, for example, from Mexico. And it can be, you know, I could be picking a strawberry one day and it’s arriving on the grocery store shelf in New York City eight days later. And that’s causing a reduction in the quality of the product. It’s also causing a reduction in the nutritional value of the product. And finally, it’s resulting in waste — spoilage of the product.

So it’s a strategic location. Another major one is, as you look at what are some of the traditional growing regions that feed America … it’s California, it’s Arizona, it’s Mexico when you’re talking about a lot of the specialty crops that fill your grocery store: your tomatoes, your cucumbers, your peppers, your strawberries, your lettuce.

Those parts of the world are becoming arid. We’re losing the soil that’s actually cultivatable there. There are major droughts.

And in Kentucky, everything that’s causing those changes because of climate change, in our region is actually bringing in a lot of water. It’s one of the beautiful benefits there. And I would say that lastly, and most importantly, it’s our commitments to the community in Appalachia. Our founder, Jonathan Webb, grew up in Kentucky. There are a lot of hardworking folks in Kentucky that want to be part of the next generation of agriculture. So, we’re able to work with the community and build these remarkable facilities. 

John Koetsier:  You talked about agriculture and farming as using about 70% of global water that we consume and this is a much better way. What does farming look like … maybe 10, 15 years from now? There’s a bunch of startups — Plenty is one, there’s a variety of others; there’s some in vertical farming; there’s yours, AppHarvest, as well — that are working on reinventing what farming looks like.

What’s your vision 10 years down the road of what farming looks like?

Josh Lessing:  So my vision is greenhouse. So, there are different ways of building a controlled environment farm, but one of the major benefits of greenhouse is the passive solar.

So when you do a vertical farm, you need to provide the light. Now there are some regions of the world — very few — where that is a fair trade-off, but for the most part, the electrical bills are through the roof.

And what we need to accomplish is making more food with less inputs. So greenhouse is a fantastic technology. There are other aspects of agriculture that I think are going to change as well. We can substantially change our livestock practices and start fusing those facilities with a lot more data. We can start also working a lot more in synthetic forms of food and really just diversifying our diets. You know, all of this is going to have to happen.

We’re seeing different trends around it now, because a lot of the places where we get our calories are hardly efficient. When you talk about like feed conversion ratios on a lot of the livestock that we eat to get our protein that we could have gotten from chickpea. That’s got to change and people are hearing that rallying cry. And we need to be — a lot of people are voting with their dollars to choose brands that actually are going to sustain their lives and their children’s lives.

John Koetsier:  What role does AppHarvest play here? Are you going to put farms everywhere or are you going to license a technology? How’s it work? 

Josh Lessing: So, we’re looking at global opportunities. So there are different pieces of the company. I’m part of the technology group and we’re looking to sell technologies all over the planet so that everyone can be a beneficiary of these advanced agricultural practices. We’re also — a different section of the business is building facilities all across Appalachia.

And then in addition, we have a third section of the business that is building joint ventures globally, where we can take our know-how from growing in Appalachia and we can take the technology products that my group develops and start working directly with, ultimately, different produce companies in different parts of the world, different retailers in different parts of the world, and different governments all over … around a goal of, again, creating yet another vehicle to democratize access to what is a superior way to grow food.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. Excellent. Josh, thank you so much for the overview. I really do appreciate it. Thank you for your time. 

Josh Lessing: Thank you.

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