“Prepare for Rationing” on Colorado. Irrigation Era in the West is Ending

October 12, 2021

90 percent of all the leafy greens grown in the US during winter are grown around Yuma, Arizona, totally dependent on the rapidly diminishing water resource from the Colorado River. That’s going to have to change.

Could the answer be happening in Appalachia?

WTVQ – Lexington:

The global population is headed toward 10 billion people by 2050, and the UN predicts that we will need to produce 70% more food to feed them. Jonathan Webb, founder and CEO of AppHarvest, believes AI-powered greenhouses are a solution.“We have to figure out how to grow a lot more food with a lot less resources, all the while in the middle of climate disruption,” says Webb. “We can do that by using technology.”

Built in 2020 and set across 60 acres, AppHarvest says its state-of-the-art greenhouse yields 30 times more per acre than open fields, while using 90% less water.

“The facility allows you to control the light, the heat, and the nutrition of the crops,” says Josh Lessing, AppHarvest’s chief technology officer. “When you have that much control over the environment, you can do a lot of interesting things,” he says.LED lights are used to supplement natural light and crops are grown without soil, in an alternative growing medium that allows water and nutrients to be absorbed by the plant root.Using 300 sensors and AI, the facility collects data from more than  700,000 plants, and growers can remotely monitor the microclimate to ensure that crops receive the ideal amount of nutrients and water.AppHarvest’s robots assess which tomatoes are ripe enough to be harvested, and then pick and prune them using their robotic arms.

A lot of people have questions.

Nice deep dive on this in Rolling Stone:

The Morehead facility is the first of 12 high-tech farms that Webb is planning to build throughout eastern Kentucky. At its core, AppHarvest runs on the agricultural resources that have helped humans feed themselves for over 10,000 years: sun and water. But there’s two caveats: First, AppHarvest doesn’t use soil; its hydroponic system means it is heavily reliant on man-made fertilizers (but without pesticides). Second, the greenhouses use technology like robotics and AI to better predict crop health and yield. Webb, in fact, balks at the term greenhouse, preferring to call his colossal projects “data driven farms.” 

“A greenhouse is not a greenhouse in the same way a sports car in 1940 has nothing in common with a 2021 Tesla except for four wheels and a steering wheel,” he says. 

Webb’s goal is to lower domestic dependence on pesticide-laden foreign imports, which provide 70 percent of U.S. vine crops at the grocery store (tomatoes, berries, cucumbers, peppers). And Webb, a Kentuckian himself, wants to provide jobs to Appalachia. But his motivation goes beyond that, he says, to the same obsessive anxiety many in his generation are facing: the screeching freight train of climate change

“I know people don’t really believe me, but every night, including last night, I am personally terrified about the future of human existence,” Webb says. “I mean 2050, it’s coming, and our heads are in the sand, and Rome is burning, and we’re not moving fast enough.”

AppHarvest claims to produce up to 30 times the yields of conventional agriculture. “This 60-acre under-glass facility can do the equivalent of 1,500-2,000 [open-field] acres in California or Mexico,” says Webb as he peels past a group of workers, some with wet towels on their heads and others with grey fans that look like large headphones around their necks, provided after workers complained of the heat.

AppHarvest says they’ve also reduced water consumption by 90 percent compared to traditional open-field agriculture by using a closed loop irrigation system that’s 100 percent reliant on rainwater, which makes Kentucky an optimal location — the state has had its wettest decade on record, and in 2020 was the wettest state in the U.S

“You look at all these tech billionaires looking to leave the planet and go to Mars, but water is the one thing Planet Earth has that nowhere else in the known universe has,” Webb says, talking quickly. “When water becomes the price of oil, that’s that Mad Maxpost-apocalyptic world that’s on the horizon if we don’t get it straight.” 

Kentucky is also optimal because the location cuts down on shipping distances, AppHarvest says. Seventy percent of the U.S. is within a day’s drive of Kentucky, reducing transportation emissions by 80 percent. And, they tout, a 50/50 mix of LED and traditional light bulbs has reduced their electricity consumption by almost 20 percent. 

But energy is perhaps the most pressing problem in controlled-environment agriculture, especially in Kentucky, which, as of 2019, still depended on coal for 73 percent of its electricity generation.

“Here in Kentucky, electricity primarily comes from coal, so with an AppHarvest tomato we’re trading fossil fuels for this product,” says Martin Richards, formerly an organic farmer and now executive director of Community Farm Alliance, a Kentucky nonprofit founded by dairy and tobacco growers in 1985. 

8 Responses to ““Prepare for Rationing” on Colorado. Irrigation Era in the West is Ending”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Greenhouses are exceptionally good at vegetable and fruit produce like tomatoes, and exceptionally bad at staple crops like wheat. The average diet is predominately staple crops – corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soy. So, while this is definitely good for a percent of our food requirements, it’s not a real substitute for most of our needs.

    The REAL problem with agriculture is that we largely waste 90%+ of the land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, labor, etc., on producing staple crops that aren’t directly food. They go towards animal feed, ethanol, and highly processed foods like corn syrup. They aren’t 100% necessary towards running our civilization. Meat can be pasture-fed, ethanol isn’t needed, corn syrup is just a substitute for sugar, and so on. We’re pouring most of our long- and short-term agricultural resources down the drain, which will be felt for many, many generations down the line, to increase the profits of a handful of companies and shareholders in the present. It’s beyond insane, and it’s completely unacknowledged.

    • Gingerbaker Says:


    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      So, while this is definitely good for a percent of our food requirements, it’s not a real substitute for most of our needs.


      I think the water efficiency gives it great potential in water-insecure areas. It’s great against locust swarms, too. Over time it seems inevitable to me that variants on the architecture to handle a greater diversity of plants. Temperature is an issue, so unless they come up with a cover that optimizes for plants without the other parts of the energy spectrum, it would be too hot for low-altitude/low-latitude applications.

      I don’t get the need for night-time growing (perhaps because they’re crammed in so tightly), but there’s probably a cost-effectiveness curve that could tell you how many hours after sunset are worthwhile.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    And it will get a lot worse in a lot of places. And what James William said.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    Greenhouses sound like they have potential. But unless they can work in the developing countries in Africa and Asia they will be many thousands of miles away from all the people who will make up the population growth of the next decades.

    Virtually all the population growth til year 2100 is slated to be in developing countries. Unless these greenhouses can make cereal crops grow like magic, they will not help our exports much.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Sub-Saharan Africa is less into grains and more into other starches, like yams and plaintains. Converting away from traditional “European” crops and plantations has worked well for them in terms of more sustainable agriculture, especially when they can blend complementary crops in the same acreage.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I went looking for videos of AppHarvest operation:

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