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Editorial: 'The Boeing of agriculture' touches down in a corner of SC that needs it

Agriculture Technology Campus (copy)

The Agriculture Technology Campus planned for Hampton County will have 200 acres of greenhouses where lettuce, tomatoes and other produce will be grown year-round for consumers in the Southeast. Provided

The $314 million investment planned for Hampton County — which will create a massive greenhouse and packing operation and up to 1,500 jobs in five years — represents one of the most significant economic development announcements ever in this rural region of South Carolina.

It’s a big win not only for Hampton County, but also for the entire state.

The Agriculture Technology Campus will cover about 1,000 acres and is planned to include greenhouses for growing pesticide-free tomatoes, leafy greens and blueberries, as well as a 150,000-square-foot distribution center and a co-packing facility. It will smartly catch and reuse rainwater for irrigation. The promising project is a joint venture between two indoor farming companies, Mastronardi and Clear Water Farms; a co-packing company, LiDestri Food and Drink; and GEM Opportunity Zone Fund.

S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers notes the project near Early Branch, a few miles from Interstate 95, will offer residents more produce coming from their backyard rather than from California and Mexico and could spur other agribusiness projects in the state. Not only will the center process crops grown on its campus, but other growers may use it to process foods such as salsa and pesto.

And it’s expected to attract other businesses, such as packaging manufacturers and shipping companies. For all these reasons, Mr. Weathers has dubbed it “the Boeing of agriculture.”

The announcement also likely represents the biggest example to date in South Carolina — and one of the biggest nationwide — of how Opportunity Zones, passed as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, can help not just wealthy investors but the people who live in the distressed areas where they invest. Unfortunately, the impact of these new Opportunity Zones is difficult to track because the legislation required little public reporting on investments, an omission that Opportunity Zones author U.S. Tim Scott hopes to persuade his colleagues to correct soon.

John Lettieri, CEO of the Economics Innovation Group, a Washington nonprofit that worked with Sen. Scott and others on the legislation, says while reporting is limited and the program’s rules were set only recently, it’s clear that the program already has steered tens of billions of dollars in new investment nationwide, not just in urban centers but in rural counties, too.

“What’s exciting to me about the Hampton County project is not just that investment in isolation but what would it mean for broader investments and better infrastructure,” Mr. Lettieri says.

The optimism on all sides is hard to miss. Hampton County Council Chairman Clay Bishop has appropriately called the project “a game changer,” and has thanked the SouthernCarolina Alliance, the S.C. Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture for their help. LiDestri Food and Drink CEO Stefani LiDestri says the partnership involves some of the best companies in locally grown produce and will have an impact on the South Carolina agriculture industry for decades.

The first part of this new campus is expected to open by 2022, and it could be fully operational three years after that.

South Carolina already has some indoor farming operations, also known as controlled environment agriculture, such as Vertical Roots and the Tyger River Smart Farm in the Upstate. But the scale of the new Agriculture Technology Campus and its prominent partnerships will set it apart.

Similar indoor farming operations are prevalent in the Netherlands, which is smaller in area than South Carolina but is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter. So as we increasingly look to the Dutch for help with limiting our floods, why not also tap into their expertise in growing foods?

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