When Ramel Smooth Bradley (’08) was growing up in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, he was very aware of the food insecurity surrounding him. His love of basketball equaled his passion for helping his neighbors, and that’s never changed.
The only son of a strong, black single mother, Bradley remembers when he was 8 or 9 years old, his grandmother, Bishop Alethia Rice came to live with him and his mother Daisy Rice. He said his grandmother instilled in him an ethic of using what he has to help whomever he can.
“All I wanted to do was play basketball, to become a professional athlete,” he said. “But every time I would come in from the park, from playing basketball, I had a list of deliveries that I had to make to folks in the community, because we would sell food and we would give food away to folks who were food insecure.”
Bradley said his grandmother had a passion for starting a mission to take care of the helpless, the hopeless and the hungry. She turned her kitchen into a place where she prepared hot meals, which was soul food for hungry neighbors.
“She taught me that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak, we all need food, fuel and encouragement,” he said. “It’s the main thing that makes me who I am today.”
Bradley said growing up, he was more focused on honing is basketball skills than perfecting his schoolwork, but then he had a scholarship opportunity to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. IMG is a preparatory boarding school and sports training academy. It was more known for golf, soccer and tennis back then. Bradley was able to be part of the first basketball program at the academy and to develop into a top-100 prospect. Then University of Kentucky head basketball coach Tubby Smith noticed Bradley’s skills and recruited him to join the Wildcats in 2004.
“Everybody knows Kentucky is the winningest program in the country,” Bradley smiled. “Coach Smith said he could really use my skills at UK. He also went to Brooklyn to talk to my mom and my grandmother. They prayed about it, and I decided to come to UK.”
Being a student-athlete had its pressures and pleasures. Choosing a field of study wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Bradley initially thought about majoring in merchandising, apparel and textiles.
“I wanted to be a professional athlete and have my own clothing brand,” he said. “It was a little overwhelming and I couldn’t make the program work with my basketball schedule, so I talked to my advisor Michael Stone and he asked me what else I cared about. I said, ‘feeding people,’ and my advisor said I needed to study agriculture.”
Not really wanting to focus on production agriculture, Bradley found a good fit with the Department of Community and Leadership Development in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and professor emeritus Lori Garkovich. Bradley said Garkovich empowered him to pursue community work.
“I felt empowered through learning how to be a better leader; learning how to serve my community,” he said. “It wasn’t until 10 to 12 years after I earned that degree that I realized it was the best choice I ever made.”
Bradley experienced some unique pressures as a student-athlete. He said he felt like everyone on campus knew him and that was fun, but it was also stressful knowing all eyes were on him.
“[Being a fan-favorite, student-athlete] made my experience fun in so many ways,” he recalled. “But I went into college thinking ‘oh, I’m going to party and be with my peers,’ but being a student-athlete and being recognized everywhere kind of forced me to be an example of how to study, be on time, represent my team, my brothers, UK and the state. So, it was kind of like ‘okay, let’s grow up now; let’s do the right thing because folks are watching you. It made me become a responsible young man a lot faster than just going to parties and letting life come to me.”
After graduation, Bradley spent some time with the New Jersey Nets before ultimately deciding to go overseas and play professional basketball in Croatia, France, Israel and Turkey.
“It was a dream come true in a lot of ways,” he said. “I always wanted to study abroad but playing college basketball didn’t allow me to do that. I got to go to another country, embrace it, all while playing basketball. Israel was probably my favorite place; I played there for four years, but I was able to win a championship and some great honors in Turkey.”
In 2016, Bradley learned that his grandmother’s health was failing, and he decided to take a break from basketball and come home to help. She was diabetic and was struggling with the effects of that and heart disease.
“I’m educating myself more and more… I learned there are millions of people dying from chronic diseases now, not just in America, around the world,” he said. “For me to see my grandmother going through it … she’s my inspiration … she’s my heart. I just needed to put basketball on pause and help my grandmother and other people.”
Bradley returned to New York and reestablished his grandmother’s neighborhood food pantry. They partnered with some of the largest organizations in New York City to feed up to 2,500 people each week.
“Right around that time, my friend Jonathan Webb called me and told me he needed me to put my agriculture degree to use,” he said. “I told him I was home and I was not leaving Brooklyn, and I told him what I was doing, feeding people. He told me I could have a larger reach.”
Webb is the CEO of AppHarvest, an agricultural technology company with a vision to feed the world. They are rooted in Kentucky, with large, controlled-environment farms in Morehead, Richmond, Somerset and Berea. They plan to make Appalachia the AgTech capital of America, feeding and empowering people and creating jobs. They plan to operate 12 high-tech, indoor farms by the end of 2025.
“Jonathan told me he wanted me to go to Pikeville and help him build a farm on top of mountain where they used to mine coal,” Bradley said. “I realized that some of the things like chronic disease, and lack of access to healthy food plaguing my grandmother and people in Brooklyn were the same things plaguing people in rural communities in Appalachia. Jonathan said feeding 2,500 people was a great thing, but we have an opportunity to help feed millions of people using modern agricultural technology. How could I say no to that?”
In 2017, Bradley returned to Kentucky and joined AppHarvest. He founded the company’s high-tech educational container farm program at Shelby Valley High School in Pike County.
“I’ve lived in many places, but going from Brooklyn, New York, to Eastern Kentucky was definitely culture shock,” he said. “I was working with high school students and teaching them how to farm in 40-foot shipping containers. The students were listening to the same music we listened to in Brooklyn, and we found some common ground. They would get up at 6:30 in the morning to come learn to farm and we listened to ‘Old Town Road’ together … country kids and a guy from Brooklyn, it was perfect.”
Bradley’s working title is community director. He continues to work with the AgTech program, but also travels around telling the AppHarvest story to community organizations, nonprofits and college students, and he supports the talent acquisition team to help find the best talent within the region and beyond. He said he would tell students who want to follow in his career footsteps that finding the right career is about putting your passion to work.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “We are feeding people healthy food, creating jobs and protecting our environment. If that’s something you care about, you should certainly want to learn more. Earning a living in something that has purpose and allows you to care for your community and prolong quality of life through healthy, accessible food is a gift. A lot of times, we have this vision, this idea of the lives we want to live, and then boom, life happens. If along that journey, you are staying true to yourself and doing things that you care about, then somehow, the creator, he makes it all work out.”
Bradley is also giving back by working with UK’s award-winning chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. He wasn’t aware of MANRRS while he was studying at UK but now feels strongly about being involved.
“Coming from Brooklyn, I really didn’t realize I was a minority studying agriculture, but now I’m in a position to make an impact on the next generation,” Bradley said. “When you see the statistics, fewer than 1% of farmers are black, and many of our black communities are food apartheid. We have a lot of work to do.”