Kentucky agritech companies – both large and small – are doing their part to address the challenges that face the future of agriculture and provide the resources necessary to feed the planet in the years and decades ahead.
Cutting Edge Ag Research
Founded in 1980 by the late Irish entrepreneur and scientist, Dr. Pearse Lyons, and his wife, Deirdre, and headquartered in Nicholasville,
Alltech has grown into a global business with a team of more than 6,000 employees. With its focus on animal and crop science research – even down to the molecular level – the company is at the forefront of agritech innovation.
Kentucky BioProcessing has already proven to be at the forefront of innovation with its role in the fight against the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The company developed an experimental medicine called ZMapp, which mass produces proteins using tobacco plants. It was one of the treatments used during the 2014 outbreak as well as the 2018 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Anyone who has produced corn knows the problems that can be caused by the corn earworm. The insect feeds on more than 50 cultivated crops, from corn to tomatoes to soybeans, causing a loss of over $2 billion annually. That is the problem
Lepidext in Lexington has worked to solve since 2015. The company’s work could reduce the need for genetically modified plants and chemical pesticides.
Is the start of the next agricultural revolution out of this Earth (literally)? Headquartered in Lexington
Space Tango has developed the capability to undertake microgravity research of plants and other living organisms in the International Space State Station for not only academic, but also commercial purposes. For example, in a recent collaboration with Anheuser-Busch, the company developed a CubeLab that implemented a microscale malting procedure for barley. The malt was then examined upon return and compared to a control on the ground.
Novel Farming Systems
The commonwealth is home to innovative vertical farming operations, aquaponics operations, and high-tech greenhouses that will be key to maintaining and increasing food production, such as
AppHarvest in Morehead,
Kentucky Fresh Harvest in Stanford,
Stellar Plants in Nicholasville, and
West Kentucky Aquaponics in Benton. From leafy greens to cherry tomatoes, these companies are helping to ensure our communities have access to fresh, locally grown products, all year round.
Farm Management Technology
Businesses in Kentucky also are providing the needed technology for farmers to get the most out of their operations.
AgConnections in Murray, develops and continuously updates crop management software solutions that make farms more efficient and compliant. AgConnections’ experienced crop management specialists help farmers set up and run the systems with a mix of on-site training, web-based training, video tutorials, and friendly, knowledgeable support.
Smart Farm Systems in Nicholasville has developed a wireless monitoring and control system that allows farmers to remotely manage irrigation pumps and environmental, soil moisture and water level monitoring devices. The systems also can be used for quarry sites and mines, providing immediate feedback regarding potential issues and greatly increasing safety at the site.
TapLogic in Murray also is focused on bringing information to farmers’ fingertips. Its web-based and mobile app technology arms farmers with all of the information needed to guarantee sustained success. That includes farm management software to increase efficiency, a soil sampling app to track lab results and a pesticide tank mix calculator to build spray recipes, among others.
Kentucky AgriTech LLC in Louisville is committed to developing technology to increase food safety, security, and sustainability. The company's founder, Ricky Mason, developed the Kentucky Best Bean Buyer app for the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board in 2016. The app is used by soybean farmers to determine best market prices, increasing ROI. The company is now working on the installation of green houses in urban neighborhoods to support urban farming. The company has partnered with Kentucky Greens, a Louisville urban agriculture startup, to develop the proof of concept and increase the availability of locally grown greens.
Silver Fern Group in Lexington offers software, IoT devices, and mobile apps, built by growers for growers. Its Work Suite collection of software tools helps growers make the most of their business data by providing forecasting, flexible production planning, replenishment, and reporting solutions, among others. Its IoT devices combine hardware and software to control greenhouse equipment from a web browser or mobile device—anywhere, anytime. The company also offers mobile apps for live goods inventory management and order accuracy.
Innovative Food Solutions
RedLeaf was founded in 2015 to produce natural food and beverage colorants, antioxidants, and antimicrobials for use in human and livestock applications. The company’s signature product is called RedN. RedN is designed to replace synthetic red colorants in many food and beverage applications and is positioned to serve as the best natural alternative in the market.
Kentucky’s universities, community and technical colleges power agritech innovation
Kentucky’s universities and colleges will play a key role in helping the state’s agritech industry realize its full growth potential.
For example, researchers at the
University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment are currently tackling a persistent food security problem that reduces US grain yields about 20% every year. The issue is known as stalk-lodging, the breakage of plant stems prior to harvest due to weather and other causes, and UK is part of a consortium developing technology that will address the root of the issue. The potential gains are enormous, as the university estimates decreasing stalk-lodging in maize by just 1% would lead to an annual production increase of 20 billion pounds, in turn saving farmers about $2 billion worth of crops. Additional R&D projects at the college include improving sustainability through advancements in cover crop-based conservation tillage systems, as well as enhancing health monitoring using drones.
Other state public universities are also advancing the state’s agritech capabilities. Through a 2018 Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund Grant,
Eastern Kentucky University obtained a robotic milking device, giving students hands-on access to the latest technology that will significantly increase milk production at the university’s Meadowbrook Farm. Meanwhile,
Kentucky State University’s Aquaculture Research Center is a leader in sustainable fish farming, containing 33 research ponds used for studying fish disease, reproduction, water quality, physiology and production systems.
Kentucky has the educational infrastructure to develop a robust workforce pipeline to support a variety of agritech jobs statewide, and an integral part of this vision is the Kentucky Community & Technical College System. With 16 colleges and more than 70 campuses across the state, the system’s widespread presence can help develop a skilled agritech workforce throughout the commonwealth.
Kentucky Businesses Embrace Agritech
Brown, LLC – Mercer County, KY (Planned Project)
To take advantage of the latest innovations in irrigation technology, Brown LLC will use scientific led irrigation planning based on soil moisture, crop growth, development, and weather patterns to improve crop production and efficient water use. Brown Ag, LLC will be constructing a reservoir to hold water from both a nearby spring and rainfall to irrigate up to 500 acres in row crop each year.
The GPS guided center pivot systems are web interfaced and hardwired to the machine to allow precise control of speed, fertigation, control valves and include weather, water meeting, and soil moisture monitoring for a fully automated system. The system is equipped with variable rate nozzles which allow differing amounts of water to be released throughout the field based on different area needs. For example, low spots generally need less water while hills need more. This system also has the ability to add fertilizer to the water during the irrigation process, a process called fertigation. Fertigation adds fertilizer at the perfect time for the plant to utilize and convert to yield. This timely application also limits nutrient loss from the field. This agritechnology is a risk management tool applied in the most environmentally friendly, sustainable fashion. Additionally, we are capturing the most critical input water without any burden to present available water. One last piece of technology, this is all controlled from a cell phone.
Chaney’s Dairy Barn – Bowling Green, KY
This project demonstrates three distinct areas that have evolved through agritechnology: bedded pack barn, robotic milking system and value-added milk bottling. Established in 2003, Chaney’s Dairy Barn is an agritoursim venue in Warren County that transitioned their herd of 60 Jersey cows from a mud lot to a bedded pack barn. Bedded pack barns have a sawdust base that is turned every day, allowing the wet sawdust to air out and the dry sawdust to absorb new waste. Along with an increase in overall cow comfort, which results in higher milk production, these barns keep cows cleaner, reduce odor and allow for more intensive herd management.
The farm transitioned from milking by hand to the installation of a Lely A4 robotic milking system. Utilizing this system gives the cows the ability to be milked at any time resulting in increased milk production and more longevity in the herd. The technology within the robot monitors the cows’ health by measuring conductivity and temperature of the milk. Both milk production amounts and milking times are monitored and available to the producer.
Lastly, Chaney’s recently ventured into the value-added sector with the purchase of equipment to bottle their own milk. This technology allows farmers to create tremendous value in their product through pasteurizing the milk, establishing their own market and setting a price to match. Chaney’s is a perfect example of utilizing agritechnology to increase cow comfort and production through both the pack barn and robotic milker, and taking control of their market by bottling their own milk.
West Kentucky Aquaponics – Benton, KY
West KY Aquaponics, LLC operates a greenhouse and grows plants and fresh vegetables to be sold from the farm at the farmers market and to local restaurants. This project combines vegetable and fish production in a 24-hr, 365 day capacity. The operation began in 2018, when photovoltaic arrays were installed to reduce the use of electricity, supplied by Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation, and to lower fixed costs.
A hydroponic greenhouse is also utilized to grow lettuce and tomatoes in an environmentally controlled facility with 24 hr. light, allowing for maximum production year round. A weather vane on the greenhouse is connected to a Wadsworth system, which reads weather conditions, temperatures and responds accordingly by opening/closing roof vents, side curtains and shades. Water is also recycled from the tanks growing tilapia. Being rich with fish waste, it is used as fertilizer for the vegetables. The agritechnology in this facility includes water testing, engineering tank design, and filtration systems. Text messages are also sent from the agritechnology to phones regarding water temperature and flow.
FeltLOOM, Inc. – Sharpsburg, KY
LanMark Farm, LLC developed a small scale version of the larger industry needle loom. The FeltLOOM creates felts from raw wool designs. As of 2016, approximately 200 FeltLOOMs have been sold in 17 countries. 3M, the global innovation company, has purchased a FeltLOOM for their laboratory. Photographers use “clouds” of wool for newborn photography shoots, and clothing and accessories produced at LanMark Farm, LLC have been displayed at the Kentucky Fashion Week.
More and more farming operations across Kentucky are utilizing precision farming. Percision farming uses agritechnology to better match nutrients to soil health and fertility. Soil is tested and data is entered into GPS controlled equipment. As the planter goes across the field, seed is planted at a rate compatible with soil fertility. For example, as one goes over poor soil, less seed is planted. This technology utilizes the nutrients as they are presented in the field to improve efficiency and limit waste and nutrient loss. Additionally, the tractor pulling the planter is GPS controlled and has auto-steer. The tractors do not miss any part of the field nor do they double up on any acreage in the planting process or herbicide application process. This agritechnology advances potential yields and is an exceptional tool in managing soil health long term.
Poultry Barn Technology
Poultry farms are some of the most technologically advanced operations in the animal agriculture industry. Barns utilize computer systems to maintain adequate temperature, feed, ventilation, light and much more. Today, many barns are built utilizing wireless internet signal to allow for farmers to make immediately needed adjustments on their cell phone until they are able to physically make it to the barn. This allows for quicker response and better management, resulting in better overall flock health. These farms are also utilizing better energy practices. Whether this is through insulation and curtains or utilization of solar energy, today’s poultry operations strive to be better stewards of energy.