Grist wins December Sidney for Exposing “Hell On Earth” at a Greenhouse Startup
Austyn Gaffney of Grist wins the December Sidney Award for “A celebrated startup promised Kentuckians green jobs. It gave them a ‘grueling hell on earth.” This deeply-reported feature, which was co-published by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, chronicles the rise and fall of AppHarvest, a startup that promised well-paid green jobs in Appalachian greenhouses growing delicious healthy produce. Based on this tantalizing pitch, founder Jonathan Webb raised over $700 million dollars in investment capital. Politicians and investors showered the company with accolades.
Gaffney reveals that AppHarvest’s business model was economically and environmentally unsound. Simply put, greenhousing requires energy and energy is expensive, and, in Kentucky, is mostly derived from dirty sources like coal.
Additionally, the company skimped on training: Crops rotted because workers were not taught how to properly truss, de-leaf and prune the tomato plants.
AppHarvest promised good wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement for local rural people. But these workers were the first casualties of the brutal economic realities. They were forced to work overtime without notice in stifling heat. They weren’t allowed to leave the greenhouses unless the temperature topped 140 degrees Fahrenheit. One called it “an absolute grueling hell on earth.” In the face of a cash crunch, the company began bringing in migrant workers. None of these measures were enough and HarvestApp went out of business.
“Glittering startup dreams can mask ugly labor realities,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.
Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer based in Kentucky. She reports on climate change, the energy industry, and culture, largely in the U.S. South, for Grist, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, Oxford American, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post, among others.
Q: How did you find out about AppHarvest?
A: In early 2021, a friend of mine started sending me posts about AppHarvest over Instagram. I’d heard about the company during Governor Andy Beshear’s evening updates during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and like many other folks in the state, I was curious about the success of a new industry in the Appalachian region. A month later, in February 2021, AppHarvest went public and friends started showing me how much they were investing in stocks. I was in contact with an editor who was looking for more climate reporting at Rolling Stone, and I pitched her a story about the launch of a controlled environment agriculture company here in Kentucky. I toured the Morehead greenhouse on an early morning in June 2021 led by founder and then-CEO Jonathan Webb, who provided a lengthy in-person interview; I published the story that August. For the next two years, I kept following the company as it began publicly announcing productivity challenges and lost profits, and I started reaching out to former employees I found through social media who slowly began to share their experiences with the company.
Q: AppHarvest was selling a dream of good jobs growing healthy, climate-friendly food in the US. Is that a pipe dream, or could it still happen?
A: I don’t think it’s a pipe dream. Any industry can provide good jobs if it chooses to prioritize workers, and controlled environment agriculture can still be a piece of a mutli-faceted puzzle to provide healthy, climate-friendly produce in a growing world, along with small and mid-sized farms that prioritize rebuilding topsoil and increasing biodiversity. But in order for CEA to be successful, energy costs have to drastically lower.
Q: What would have to be done differently to make that dream a reality?
A: Based on my reporting, AppHarvest grew too big, too quickly, and with too much borrowed money. After raising almost $800 million after 12 rounds of funding, building five new facilities, and facing millions in lost profits, investors began demanding repayment after AppHarvest publicly acknowledged productivity and financial challenges. If AppHarvest had focused on the inaugural Morehead greenhouse – refining its farming practices while investing in employee training and prioritizing its workforce – perhaps the company would have had a better foundation on which to launch new greenhouses across Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia.
Q: This story relies heavily on documents. Can you walk us through the documents you used and what they brought to your understanding of AppHarvest?
A: Through two open records requests to the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, I accessed eight occupational safety and health complaints, almost half of which revealed workers were concerned about extreme heat and access to drinking water in at least two of AppHarvests’ five greenhouses, along with visa applications for at least 140 contract workers at two more greenhouses over the last year. In Securities and Exchange Commission filings, AppHarvest claimed to have begun hiring these workers in the summer and fall of 2021, less than a year after opening its inaugural greenhouse. Further digging into Chapter 11 bankruptcy documents showed that AppHarvest retained more than 450 contract workers in 2023, paying them approximately $2.5 million per month, a complete departure from AppHarvest’s original pledge to hire Appalachian workers, including out-of-work coal miners, while building its greenhouses largely in college towns without a history of active coal mining. These documents showed that while AppHarvest had made promises to uplift the Appalachian region in order to appeal to investors, the promises it made to hire such a workforce and provide good working conditions were quickly thrown out in an effort to increase profits.
Q: AppHarvest was a physically and emotionally grueling place to work. How did the conditions affect the workforce?
The working conditions in the greenhouse – especially working in extreme heat without a state or federal heat safety standard and working mandatory overtime – demoralized an initially excited workforce. One worker told me that while she began her job in 2020 skipping down the rows, by the time she left her job less than three years later, she was prone to nightmares of dying in the greenhouse, ideations of self-harm, and felt increasingly like she’d joined a cult.
Q: What did you learn from this investigation that you’ll carry forward to your next assignment
A: This investigation cemented the importance of building long-term, trusting relationships with sources. This story would have been impossible if former workers had felt uncomfortable telling me about their deeply personal experiences, and I’m grateful they gave me the time and energy required to share their lives. I also learned more about cross-referencing documents; without using SEC filings, bankruptcy documents, state open records requests, private emails, and interview transcripts, I wouldn’t have been able to prove the full timeline and scope of hiring contract workers at the AppHarvest greenhouses.