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Grafting operation called 'a day to remember' in farm economy

Tri-Hishtil manager Cal Lewis talks about the plant grafting operation locating in Mills River. Tri-Hishtil manager Cal Lewis talks about the plant grafting operation locating in Mills River.

A global partnership's decision to locate a plant-grafting operation in Mills River was described today as a "monumental" recruitment coup and a "day to remember" for the business of farming in Henderson County and Western North Carolina.

The international venture, a partnership of American, Italian and Israeli companies called Tri-Hishtil, announced the greenhouse operation that will bring 125 agricultural, marketing and management jobs to a 42-acre site formerly owned by Van Wingerden International on NC 19. Company officials and local agricultural leaders said the Mills River operation represents the first large-scale vegetable-grafting operation of its kind in the U.S. The company says it will grow strong disease-resistant plants that require less pesticide and produce higher yields and sell them to farmers along the Eastern Seaboard.

The announcement at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Historic Courthouse drew a crowd of 50 people from N.C. State University plant scientists to the mayors of Mills River and Hendersonville to county commissioners to state Sen. Tom Apodaca, who said Gov. Pat McCrory, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker had all called to express their excitement about the project and convey their congratulations.

"I have to say this has been the highlight of my career," said Mark Williams, executive director of Henderson County Agribusiness. "After two full years ofnurturing and developing the project, Agribusiness Henderson County is pleased to share with you that today, Aug. 14, 2014, is a date to remember in agriculture for Henderson County and far beyond."

The new company is made up of TriEst Ag Group, which has more than 50 years of soil management and fumigation experience, Hishtil, a global leader in plant grafting based in Israel, and SIS-Centro SEIA, an Italian company specializing in plant breeding.

"We have successful joint venture operations in six countries and after much planning for one in the US, Mark Williams helped make it a reality by identifying a suitable partner and site and by providing valuable assistance throughout the project development," Saidoti Dagan of Hisht-Israel said.

'Monumental event'

 

"This is a monumental event," said Bill Yarborough of the state Department of Agriculture. "As an agronomist for 37 years I've worked in (plant) disease. I've seen a lot of things happen. This is one of the biggest things that could happen to this end of the state. I give credit to all of Henderson County. What you did by having an economic development person for agriculture is tremendous. ... As a mountain boy, this seems like a glorious day."

A Farm Bureau official congratulated the company on choosing North Carolina for the project.

"It's a special honor to know that it's come full circle," said Debbie Hamrick, specialty products manager for the Farm Bureau. "When Art Van Wingerden came here all those decades ago, he truly created a revolution in the American greenhouse industry. It's fitting that this new joint venture is taking land from the Van Wingerdenempire and begining another technological revolution with grafted vegetable plants."

The partnership finalized the purchase of the Van Wingerden site one day earlier. Greenhouse production of grafted vegetable plants will focus on watermelons, tomatoes, cantaloupes, peppers and eggplant, said Tri-Hishtil Manager Cal Lewis.

The company will work closely with breeders and with growers that grow and sell vegetables. The joint venture plans to lead grafting innovation in the U.S. “by integrating the abilities of the three partners,” Lewis said. “We think that combination can tap into the marketplace and provide the growers with the grafted plants which we think is the new generation of solving some of the problems that growers face.”

“This is not new science,” added Lewis, whose father worked at the Mills River Research Station while he was a student at N.C. State University. “Grafting is very old. There’s not any apples grown in this area, citrus in the United States, walnut, tree fruits of any kind that aren’t used without having a grafted rootstock with a desirable science.

“The difference now is tree populations are very sparse, and it was affordable because you’re planting a couple hundred trees per acre. In vegetables you’re planting several thousand per acre. So just the tedious nature and expense of the labor involved has made it unattainable from an expense standpoint really until now, when we’re having to rely less on chemicals to rid our soils of disease.

“Yes, it’s more expensive for a grower to buy these plants. Yet there are growers using grafted plants that have abandoned these farms for many years that are able to go back and farm soils that were disease ridden. It’s a much higher input cost but it is a solution to continue farming on into the future.” Tri-Hishtil plans to start with watermelon and tomatoes.

Lewis would not disclose a cost estimate for the total greenhouse investment. The company will start out with five to seven acres of greenhouse space, he said, and hopes to eventually have the entire 42 acres under roof. He did not have an average salary for the jobs.

"It'll be a mix of management and farm labor with special type of skills," he said. "We'll have our good folks from Italy and Israel to help with the training."

"The Tri-Hishtil collaboration is the first grafted vegetable operation in the United States of this size and caliber," Williams said in a news release. "The technology they bring is proven in the Mediterranean, Europe and other parts of the world and is a viable solution to changes in the growing environment."

Grafting, the art of marrying a disease resistant rootstock with the top of a plant, or scion, is common in the apple industry and among all tree fruit growers.

Persistent recruiting

 

Lewis said when Williams first approached him about a partnership with Hishtil, “I blew him off.”

“Being the persistent advocate for agriculture that he is, particularly for Henderson County, he again approached me at a vegetable producers meeting in Myrtle Beach,” he said. “This time I at least gave him the courtesy of telling him I’d look into it. I did and as fate would have it, I found out that our group’s associate in Italy in fact had a plant-grafting operation in Europe.”

The Italian company in turn had a partnership with the Israeli company that was already exploring a U.S. operation.

“Obviously that kicked off our interest,” he said. “Mark initiated the project, kept it moving along, and when obstacles arose, he stayed persistent and drove us through the process.”

 

Williams put a photo on the screen showing Lewis at a blackberry field day in Henderson County exactly two years ago.

“That was really my first introduction to Cal, two years ago today,” he said. The overlaps to me continue to be absolutely amazing. This goes back to Mr. Dagan (of Hishtil-Israel) and Art Van Wingerden (the Dutch founder of the Mills River greenhouse company), many years ago, having met, known each other, been part of the industry, even in those days sharing information back and forth.

“Mr. Dagan knew that Art Van Wingerden spent many hours researching, trying to find a suitable location for his operation — climate, all the conditions — and had selected North Carolina. Having remembered that, his folks made contact with Van Wingerden.”

Williams persuaded the Dagans to make a stop in Henderson County last November when they traveled to the U.S. for a plant-grafting symposium. The three companies, each contributing something the other two needed, came together for the partnership.

“It couldn’t have been a better fit,” Williams said.

Henderson County Commissioner Tommy Thompson said Friday's announcement vindicated the county's investment in an agriculture recruitment office three years ago.

 

“We used the term a minute ago ‘return on investment,’” he said. “Those people in 2011 and 2012 that were sitting back and saying to themselves, ‘Well, what are the people in agriculture doing? All they’re doing is spending money for this agricultural cause and we’re not seeing much going on.’

"Our return on investment — what the county has spent to get us where we are now — is absolutely amazing. One-hundred and twenty-five jobs. Where are those people going to eat? Where are they going to buy cars? Where are they going to live? It’s all about jobs, it’s all about taking care of our people in Western North Carolina, and agriculture is coming up on the high end of that. I’m just so happy I can’t even explain myself.”