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Canadian company to grow tomatoes here under 45 acres of roof

Lakeside CEO Chris Cervini describes greenhouse operation coming to Ladson Road. Lakeside CEO Chris Cervini describes greenhouse operation coming to Ladson Road.

MILLS RIVER — A Canadian produce company plans to invest close to $75 million in a farming operation growing greenhouse tomatoes in the largest vegetable production under roof in North Carolina, the company's president and AgHC officials announced at a news conference on Thursday.

Lakeside Produce Co., of Leamington, Canada, plans to have its first 15-acre greenhouse producing tomatoes and other vegetables by November 2019 and will add two more greenhouses the same size, eventually employing 150 people. It has bought 116 acres from local landowner Drew Brannon, whose family has farmed Horse Shoe and Mills River land since 1855.

"Daddy and I bought that property in the 1970s," Brannon said. "I wanted it to stay in agriculture."

He has leased the land for tomato growing in the past but it's fallow this year while Brannon negotiated the sale of the land to Lakeside.

"Why North Carolina? Why Mills River," Lakeside president and CEO Chris Cervini said. "I've been explaining this to a lot of people but I want you all to know that the local commissioners sat here with humility and empathy and said we want you to come here to our area. We've made mistakes in the past but we have a strategy. It was really, really nice to see that you have a strategy here."

Cervini singled out Mark Williams, the president of AgHC, the agriculture-promoting agency funded by Henderson County, Hendersonville and Mills River, for his work in the recruitment of the international greenhouse operation. Williams worked with the city of Hendersonville on an agreement to extend water to the site. 

Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk recalled Williams visiting the City Council "to see if we could get water here. There was no question with the council we were happy to work again with AgHC."

Henderson County  had "decided to make a concerted effort to promote agriculture in the county, similar to what commissioners had done years ago with the manufacturing sector," Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley said. "What you see here today is a good example of a return on that investment and I think commissioners are very pleased to see results like this growing the agricultural segment of our community."

Lakeside's project manager, Mary Scerbo, scoured the country for a location and found Henderson County and its agriculture-recruiting arm, in Williams. She called the boss and told him, "I think I've found the real deal."

"The elevation here along with local support is why we have chosen this area," he said. "I can't thank you enough for actually putting financial support into AgHC."

The company also chose the southern Blue Ridge Mountains for the contrast in sunny days with cool nights, a temperature difference that drives sugar into the fruit and makes greenhouse tomatoes more flavorful. "That's the reason we're coming here."

Lakeside already sells greenhouse tomatoes to Fresh Market, Publix and other supermarkets, Cervini said.

Besides greenhouse workers, the operation will hire managers, supervisors, maintenance engineers, food safety specialists and packing line technicians. Lakeside also plans to launch a $2,000 scholarship program for high school seniors that "comes with a job," Cervini said. "We want them here working on the farm."