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Global partnership breaks ground in Mills River

MILLS RIVER — With the turn of frozen ground, Henderson County, Mills River, Hendersonville and agribusiness leaders marked the beginning of construction of an international plant grafting operation that will bring 125 jobs and help farmers grow higher quality fruit and vegetables at a higher yield.

The ground-breaking in a field whipped by a bitter cold wind was the ceremonial kickoff for the arrival of an international partnership that chose Mills River for the grafting and greenhouse operation on 42 acres of land at the corner of School House Road and N.C. 191.

A partnership of American, Italian and Israeli companies, Tri-Hishtil will grow strong disease-resistant plants that require less pesticide and produce higher yields and sell them to farmers along the Eastern Seaboard. Phase 1 of the agriculture enterprise will be made up of 2½ acres of greenhouses plus a production center where the sowing, germinating and grafting will take place.
"The grafting process is a labor intensive and tedious process and this is where a lot of able and trained hands will be needed," said Bert Lemkes, Tri-Hishtil's general manager. "The initial capacity of the first phase will be 400,000 young grafted plants per week in the peak season. That means we have to build three very important aspects of this business — the facility itself, the market and the team of people that will be working in this greenhouse business." The first product, grafted watermelon plants, should be ready by December.
A $200,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation will help bring water and sewer service to the site.
"We're about economic development and economic transition," said Mark Sorrells, the senior vice president for the foundation, which helps farmers and farm communities with job-creating development. "We do agriculture and economic development, and this happens to be at the cross-section of those two. Not only is this project going to create a significant jobs for our community but it's also going to benefit our farmers and that's a great thing."
Mark Williams, executive director of Agribusiness Henderson County, noted that the grafting venture had already resulted spinoff business for eight other partners, including bankers, grading contractors, surveyors and construction companies. Cooper Construction Co. already had heavy equipment on site for the building work; the Van Wingerden greenhouse building company is another contractor for the development.
Williams noted that he and his board had invested three years in recruiting, negotiating, forming partnerships and guiding the project. The union of the Italian, Israeli and American companies had its seed, he noted, in greenhouse pioneer Art Van Wingerden's original search for an ideal place to grow seedlings.
In the 1970s Van Wingerden identified Mills River "as a great opportunity for the greenhouse industry because of the sunlight — it may be cold but we've got sunlight — great water, a good geographic location and a good business environment," Williams said.
Van Wingerden knew the Israeli plant grower Saidoti Dagan "in those early days," Williams said. "Fast forward now, some 40 years later, and the Dagan family remembered that relationship with Art Van Wingerden and this location and the value for greenhouse production."