Could controlled environment agriculture change the face of American farming?

Exclusives from Urban Ag News

Ramel Bradley thinks so. The community director at AppHarvest is talking to students and communities across the country about the benefits of locally-grown food and the agtech used to produce it.

[Photo above: Ramel with students and faculty from Breathitt High School in Jackson, Ky. on Jan. 15 at the opening of the school’s new container farm funded by AppHarvest and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.]

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ramel “Smooth” Bradley aspired to become a professional basketball player like some of the kids that came before him. NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Bernhard King were two of his role models.

“These great legends inspired my love for the game of basketball,” Bradley said. “As I got older my talents began to increase and I became one of the top prospects in the city. I attended Manhattan Park West High School in New York City and then transferred to the Pendleton School at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where I was member of the first basketball team in school history.”

Ramel Bradley, community director at AppHarvest, said the company has created a platform which has enabled him to become a Black farmer and community and youth leader.

At IMG Bradley was recruited by multiple college coaches including those from the University of Kentucky.

“What brought me to Kentucky was my love for the game of basketball,” he said. “While at UK, I became the starting point guard, captain and fan favorite of the Wildcats. I earned my degree and then played professional basketball in multiple countries including Croatia, France, Turkey and Israel.”

More important than basketball

In 2016 while visiting his family in New York, Bradley discovered his grandmother was having some health issues.

“I decided to stop playing the game I love for something that I love much more–my family and my community,” he said. “When I was 10-years old and falling in love with the game of basketball, my grandmother started a mission in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, focused solely on feeding the hungry. She started the mission in her kitchen out of the need to feed people who were hungry to provide them with some hope and encouragement.”

“I studied in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky because of the seed that was planted in me by my family. My interest in agriculture came from the leadership that my grandmother and family displayed in serving the community. I could see the difference on people’s faces when they were fed a meal and they received encouraging words regardless of their circumstances or where they came from.”

AppHarvest has opened a 60-acre state-of-the-art greenhouse facility in eastern Kentucky to produce tomatoes. A second tomato facility is under construction with plans to open a third greenhouse operation for producing leafy greens.
Photos courtesy of AppHarvest.

Healthy food is a solution

When Bradley stopped playing basketball he became involved again with his grandmother’s mission.

“We restarted the neighborhood pantry and I started to learn a lot more about the community in regards to food deserts, preventable diseases and the number of Americans dying from these diseases,” he said. “My grandmother is blind now and going to dialysis three times a week. It is one of the most devastating things for her to go through and for my family and I to have to witness. I also have friends and family who suffer from obesity. I never realized the level of access I was provided as a professional athlete to not only training and conditioning and living a healthy lifestyle, but also having access to healthy, nutritious food.

“When I came back home and got to see firsthand that family, friends and community members were suffering from preventable diseases, I made the decision to dedicate my life to feeding the people in my community. Healthy food is a solution to a lot of problems.”

While Bradley believes having access to food can have a major impact on improving the lives of Americans, it is the type of food that is even more important.

“One of the things that drives me is the health and nutritional well-being of our urban community members–the longevity of life,” he said. “A lot of the food that we are exposed to in our communities is processed and it’s just not good for us. If we can get people to eat healthier food, how many lives do we prolong and how many family members can lead happier lives?”

The CDC reported that only one in 10 Americans consumes enough fruits and vegetables. Cost has been cited as a possible barrier to higher fruit and vegetable consumption, especially for low-income households.

“There are a lot of people who are hungry in the world and need to receive food,” Bradley said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the food insecurity issue. If we’re not growing our own food, who is growing our food? Much of the produce consumed in America is imported. The U.S. imported more than 60% of fresh tomatoes in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“If the borders are closed where is that food going to come from? It is crucial that we grow our own food, which will help increase food security, whether it is controlled environment agriculture or open-field agriculture. We’re going to need a lot more food production and we’re going to need a lot more local food production.

Bradley said family and friends recently celebrated his grandmother’s mission by supporting New York City’s largest assistance organizations by giving out 1 million food boxes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From AppHarvest’s tomato greenhouse in Morehead, Ky., the company can reach about 70 percent of the U.S. population in a one-day drive.

“Every week we feed families in the community in cooperation with a number of community organizations, including Change Food, Food Bank NY, City Harvest and the Campaign for Hunger,” he said. “All of these organizations have really stepped up in Brooklyn and N.Y. City to deliver nutritious food to community members.”

Reaching out to local communities

In 2016 after retiring from professional basketball, Bradley received a phone call from his good friend and University of Kentucky classmate Jonathan Webb.

“We had a real-life conversation about the lack of economic mobility in our communities, me in Brooklyn and Jonathan in Pikeville, Ky.,” Bradley said. “He knew that I was feeding community members trying to help them overcome preventable diseases. Jonathan told me about his vision of growing vegetables using controlled environment agriculture and being able to feed 70 percent of the Eastern seaboard through a central location in eastern Kentucky in Appalachia.

“That was the birth of our partnership and what brought me back to Kentucky, for us to start AppHarvest. We recently opened the doors to a 60-acre state-of-the-art greenhouse facility in Morehead, Ky.”

Bradley, who is community director at AppHarvest, works with both company employees as well as doing community outreach.

“Since I’ve trained extensively in controlled environment agriculture facilities, I’m able to provide a knowledge transfer to those coming into our company learning about this new industry and providing encouragement to our employees,” he said. That is what I do from an internal standpoint.

“Externally, I go out and share the AppHarvest story with students and community groups around the state and across the country to get them excited about agtech programs. When I joined Jonathan’s vision of making Appalachia an agtech hub one of the first things I did was to create an agtech program that we implemented in eastern Kentucky.”

One of the projects AppHarvest was involved with was retrofitting a 40-foot shipping container into a hydroponic production system that operates with a 5-gallon closed-loop irrigation system and LED lights for students to grow food.

One of AppHarvest’s outreach projects was retrofitting a 40-foot shipping container into a hydroponic production system that allows students to grow food.

“I helped develop the curriculum which teaches the students about plant science, the local food system, the food supply chain, how to build their own local food system and entrepreneurship,” Bradley said. “We have engaged hundreds of students from elementary to high school showing them a new way to grow food.

“We recently partnered with the Save the Children organization where we made over 1,600 grow kits for students to take home and learn about hydroponic growing. The students grow their own lettuce and we provide them with recipes that they can use to cook with their parents while they’re home during the pandemic.”

AppHarvest is also partnering with five universities in Kentucky. The goal is to work closely with them to develop programming and research and development with their students.

“What we are doing at AppHarvest is not being taught at most universities or high schools,” Bradley said. “We have been working with the governor of Kentucky who has put together an agtech task force which I am a part of. We want to continue developing partnerships with universities as well as community organizations throughout the state.

“We have broken ground on a second tomato greenhouse facility and a third facility for the production of leafy greens. We are very adamant about redefining agriculture and making the biggest impact we can possibly make.”

Inspiring future ag leaders

Through Bradley’s role as one of the founding members of AppHarvest, he has transitioned from professional athlete to becoming a Black farmer and community and youth leader.

“It is only right that I use this platform and use this responsibility to provide more access and more opportunity to future Black ag leaders,” he said. “Less than 2 percent of American farmers are African-Americans. By doing the work I’m doing I can hopefully inspire folks that look like me to take advantage of the new opportunities in this growing community.”

Bradley has been talking with leading youth agricultural organizations, including 4-H, FFA and Jr. MANRRS, to implement multicultural programs to develop future ag industry leaders.

“I’m also looking to work closely with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU),” he said. “I’ll start in Kentucky and then hopefully be able to provide access and opportunity to students at HBCU schools throughout the nation. That is another way we can make the ag community more diverse.

“Barriers are being broken by the work that I’m doing. I’m looking to inspire the people who I would like to see get involved in this industry. I am the modern farmer and this is how their future could look.” 

Ramel Bradley, AppHarvest

For more: AppHarvest,;

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

3 thoughts on “Could controlled environment agriculture change the face of American farming?

  1. I’m interested in learning more. I’m just starting to do some micro green growing and need to learn more about recipes and also what containers to use for storing the greens. ks

  2. I am interested in working with any CEA enterprise here in San Diego County. So far all I have seen are training programs that cost me money, so if you are generally interested in hiring an experienced urban dirt farmer, please contact me at Thanks.

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