The state of Kentucky is poised to be a leader in what will likely be a trillion-dollar Agtech industry. The importance of a resilient food system cannot be understated, and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in our existing food system. A lot of attention has been directed towards AppHarvest, and for good reason. They are revolutionizing agriculture and innovating new ways to grow food and distribute it efficiently.
However, there are Agtech start-ups that rely on a traditional farming base that have the know-how to raise plants from seed, harvest them, and deliver them to the downstream entity. Three of those companies are headquartered right here in central Kentucky and range from plant-based medicines to labor-reducing equipment manufacturers.
A1 Ag Implements was founded around the idea of building a device that could cut labor hours for weed removal in large fields of produce, tobacco, and hemp. Taylor and Travis Cooper, two brothers from Kentucky along with Cody Arvin, are life-long farmers. They believe that in order to stay profitable in farming, you must mechanize and cut costs. Initially dubbed the “hemp-hawk” the Cooper’s and Cody started with a single row weeder that was designed specifically with hemp in mind. After initial success selling smaller versions of the hemp-hawk, they have scaled up to as large as eight rows and are selling the hydraulic weeding system to organic row crop farmers that grow anything from peanuts to peppers.
Artemiflow is a technology-based start-up that uses extracts from a plant called Artemisia Annua to treat malaria, cancer, and other diseases. The extract, artemisinin, is one of many derivatives that the Artemisia plant contains. Artemiflow has a patented extraction model that is more efficient and environmentally friendly than existing processing and extraction models.
Artemisinin has been consumed in China for generations. It also has been used in medications to treat malaria in Africa. However, recent studies in the United States have shown promise for the extract to be effective in COVID-19 treatments and even some types of cancer.
At this point, the production of the Artemisia plant is very labor-intensive. That is one reason Artemiflow has decided to focus its clinical and production trials in Kentucky. The grower base here is very skilled at producing labor-intensive crops efficiently and is eager to continue that trend with the exit of tobacco and hemp.
RedLeaf Biologics is another technology-based start-up. However, instead of an extraction-based technology, RedLeaf boasts a genetically engineered plant variety that was identified after many trials of lab work performed by founder Seth DeBolt. RedLeaf is a type of sweet sorghum plant that contains a red leaf instead of the typical green leaf found on most other varieties of sorghum. What is unique about RedLeaf’s plant is that the red pigment found in the leaves can be extracted and used in many consumer products. From snack foods to cosmetics the red pigment is a great natural alternative to synthetic food colorings.
Unlike other sorghum plants that use the stalk for the final product, RedLeaf uses the leaf. This makes the production process similar to tobacco, therefore it is a great candidate for yet another crop that Kentucky farmers can grow.
However, like all innovative companies, the need for capital to further develop and scale these technologies is more important than ever. The state government has indicated that Kentucky wants to be a leader in ag-tech, but it’s up to the entrepreneurs, institutions, and most importantly the investors to seize this opportunity and commit to being a market leader in ag-tech. As we like to say at Middle Tech, “we are still in the early innings” and now is the time to be a leader in innovating the farming process in not only Kentucky but the United States as well.