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Big salad greens grower coming to former Seven Falls land

Bright Farms site scout Sean O'Neill says Henderson County was the perfect location for the salad green grower's greenhouse operation. Bright Farms site scout Sean O'Neill says Henderson County was the perfect location for the salad green grower's greenhouse operation.

The Seven Falls land in the Pleasant Grove community has been farmland. It was once eyed for a campground. It was a dairy once and a dairy again. Then it became infamous when a real estate development touted with great fanfare as a grand golf resort turned out to be the biggest financial fraud in recent county history.

Now, the land on the French Broad River will be in agriculture again, more high tech than ever before, and without a single plow blade turning the earth or farmworker harvesting a crop from the soil. An array of county and state officials on Wednesday celebrated the news that Bright Farms, a large hydroponic salad greens producer, will invest $21 million and create 54 higher paying jobs in a greenhouse operation with seven acres under glass.
“The property where BrightFarms is going to be has now come full circle,” Noland Ramsey, chairman of AgHC, the county’s economic development agency for agriculture, told the gathering at the Historic Courthouse. “It was a dairy farm and then I think it was a proposed campground and then it was a dairy farm again and a creamery and then it was part of a huge golf resort project, supposed to be, and now it’s back to farming, it’s back to agriculture.”

Clean water

Sean O’Neill, the Bright Farms project developer who has scouted sites across America, praised the climate, the water, the community and the economic development program funded by the Board of Commissioners and headed by Mark Williams. Flying into the Asheville Regional Airport, O’Neill got a bird's eye view of major farming operations in the Mills River area and beyond, including major packers like Lippman and Flavor 1st and big greenhouse growers like Lakeside, Van Wingerden and Trihishtil.

“And you have an ecosystem of expertise and suppliers and contractors and partners that are very impressive and of course the Southern welcome that I grew up and truly appreciate,” O’Neill, a Kentucky native, said. “I’d be lying if I said climate was not a factor. I don’t need to tell you that you have ideal average temperatures for greenhouses, you have the moderating altitude and I would note that you have the cleanest water that we tested anywhere.”
When the site hunters sent the Pleasant Grove water to the lab, “our water guys said, ‘Where did this come from? We need to build there.’”
Build they will, they decided, after consummating a process that started 14 months ago and involved at least eight county and state organizations. The magnitude of the announcement was underscored by the turnout of elected leaders. Four out of five county commissioners joined state Commerce Secretary Anthony “Tony” Copeland, District Attorney Greg Newman and aides for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows and state legislators for the announcement.
Noting that “agriculture is still the largest industry in North Carolina,” Copeland observed that Henderson County is uniquely situated to grow, pack and ship commodities to market.
“You’re an eight-hour drive from all the customers in America,” he said.
Proximity to market, besides our water, sun and air, was a factor, although salad greens grown and packaged won't travel far. The company is so devoted to freshness that it ships no more than 200 miles.
BrightFarms Arugula NCBright Farms packaging shows Hendersonville operation. “So what are we going to do here? BrightFarms is going to make the greens local, sustainable and fresh,” he said. “Right now nearly 100% of the salad greens in the grocery will be California grown. They travel thousands of miles, takes a week (to ship greens) grown in a field subject to soil pathogens like E coli.
“BrightFarms is going to bring salad greens to area grocers within 24 hours of harvest,” he said. “It’s going to last on the shelf or in your fridge an extra week, it’s going have no herbicides and no pesticides. It will use fresh local water and have zero runoff. It’s going to use modern high tech growing techniques. We’re going to convert low-wage, low-technology high polluting jobs in California to higher tech, better paying jobs in North Carolina.”

In addition to a performance-based state grant of $55,000 from the One North Carolina Fund, the project got a deal-sweetening boost when Henderson County commissioners authorized property tax rebates of up to $530,348 over seven years.

BrightFarms workers on average will earn paychecks that are 10% higher than the county’s average wage, plus health care benefits and 401k plans, the company said. Although wages will vary depending on the position, the average for all new positions could reach up to $41,693, a news release from the governor's office said, above the county's average annual wage of $38,297.

BrightFarms bought 31 acres from Conserving Carolina, which had purchased 146 acres of the old Seven Falls Golf & River Club property in 2017 for $700,000.

 “They carved off an upland piece and kept to themselves the wetlands and low end sensitive areas,” O’Neill said of the conservancy. “They’ve done the kind of clever market intervention that makes conservation not just the right thing to do but viable.”

BrightFarm's purchase of the land “made us whole, because we had to borrow money for the purchase,” said Kieran Roe, executive director Conserving Carolina.

The greenhouse, packing and shipping complex along Pleasant Grove Road may one day have a park in its backyard. Roe said he’s had “very conceptual” conversations with county officials about a county park “kind of modeled on the Park at Flat Rock, (with) walking trails, natural enjoyment. They don’t have that really in Etowah right now.”

Praise for Williams, AgHC

Some of O’Neill’s highest praise was for Mark Williams. A Dana native who grew up on an apple farm, Williams worked in farm finance, as an executive with Flavor 1st and served one term as a county commissioner before becoming the first and only director of AgHC.
“There’s no place I have been, and I scout all over the country for sites, there’s no other place that has an agribusiness office for the county," O'Neill said. "I haven’t been anywhere where the head of that office shows up, picks you up at the airport, takes you to 18 properties on the first day. He has been at every step, from permitting to grant opportunities.” When O'Neill asked about area shippers, Williams set up six meetings with companies that could help Bright Farms distribute.
“It’s remarkable and a real credit to the county for its foresight to have that office and to put people in it,” he said. When he first met with the county administration, “Mr. (Steve) Wyatt began by saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ not, ‘These are our requirements to come here,’ and they have delivered that help.”
Gov. Roy Cooper praised the company for its commitment to protecting natural resources while boosting the economy.

“Agriculture has always been a strong driver in North Carolina, and BrightFarms’ expansion is good for our state," he said in a news release. "They are committed to conserving water, land and energy resources while growing their business — green economic development that is good for the company, the community and the workers who will support them."

County Commission Chair Grady Hawkins cited the teamwork that landed the county's newest jobs maker.
“Our community is a friendly environment for business,” he said. “We’re delighted that we now have an agriculture-type business that’s environmentally compatible, actually pays a wage that’s in excess of what our average is. … We had some speed-up moments and some slow-down moments but here we are. We’re confident that this agribusiness in the county is going to be, excuse the pun, very bright.”