• Fri. Sep 25th, 2020

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Technology

What do local farmers think about SC Agriculture Tech Campus

A recently announced 1,000-plus acre agriculture development in Hampton County has thrilled local and state officials because of the infusion of many new jobs and the boost to the local economy.

But how, and whether, the project affects smaller agricultural businesses in the area, like family-owned farms, may be unclear for some time.

On Sept. 2, top state and local officials and the U.S. secretary of agriculture announced a history-making project planned to create 1,500 jobs in Hampton County. The Agricultural Technology Campus is a $314 million investment in an opportunity zone — touted as the largest in the country.

Opportunity Zones are low-income geographic areas recognized by their states as key locations for economic development. Hampton County fits the bill as a predominately rural area with a population of about 19,200 people, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The data also indicate roughly one in four residents in the county lives in poverty.

The Agriculture Technology Campus, deemed the first of its kind, is slated to be built in the Southern Carolina Industrial Campus in Early Branch and be fully operational by 2025. Plans include pesticide-free greenhouses, a 150,000-square-foot distribution center and a co-packing facility.

The campus will be able to grow fresh food year-round, and officials say some of the products will be given to local food banks and sold in local grocery stores.

Since the major project was kept top secret until the announcement, most local farmers say they aren’t sure how the campus will affect their small businesses. But they are cheering the lift to their county’s bottom line — the jobs, tax revenue and use of land that has produced only timber for so long.

Is it an ‘answered prayer’?

Bill Harper Sr., farm manager of Solo Verdi Meats in Hampton, said the agribusiness cluster will be a “great shot in the arm.”

“Any industry that can come into Hampton County would be greatly appreciated,” Harper said. “We’re small, but we’re really hurting.”

Neal Murdaugh, owner of Murdaugh Farms in Early Branch where the campus will be located, agreed. His family has been living on their land since 1940.

“It’s going to be nice to see the area go from timberland to industry,” Murdaugh said. “At this point, I see no negative impact at all. It’s going to be wonderful. There’s just no jobs here. Our taxes are high, so hopefully this will help.”

He said he is not concerned about the agriculture campus competing with his farm. Murdaugh Farms sells a diverse assortment of produce, with a specialty in watermelon.

“I doubt they’re going to be growing watermelons in a greenhouse,” Murdaugh said.

Brant Family Farm owners Don and Susan Brant grow chemical-free fruits and vegetables in Varnville.

The couple said they aren’t sure how the campus will affect local farmers, “if it will at all,” since local farmers usually deal directly with customers, whereas the campus will likely be selling to grocery stores and larger facilities.

“However … we see this as an answered prayer as it will provide jobs for many who are in need of work,” they said. “For this we are thankful to see the business come into the area.”

One farmer in nearby Jasper County is not as optimistic.

Marissa Paykos, who owns Whippoorwill Farms in Ridgeland, said that although she supports innovation and bringing jobs to rural areas, she worries about the potential environmental effects of the agricultural campus. Paykos runs a regenerative farm, raising poultry in pastures and growing her vegetables organically.

“Even though the controlled environmental agriculture is a great method for growing, and it is more environmentally friendly in some ways than others — and yes, it is going to bring jobs, and yes, going to bring revenue — it is still a factory farming operation,” Paykos said.

She said growing produce on such a “gigantic scale” means large amounts of waste and potential contamination.

Paykos said she was skeptical of the claim from campus developers that the food it produced would be regularly available at local grocery stores. Instead, she predicted, it would be carted across the South, driving up revenue for corporations and leaving a large carbon footprint.

She said she knows farmers who employ the techniques the agribusiness cluster has said it will use, including hydroponics and aquaponics, and that she would feel better if the company planned to give its food waste to local farmers as compost.

Based on what little she knows, “The amount of money they are talking about — the $314 million agricultural campus, powerhouse agribusiness — that is the opposite of what a small local farmer is wanting to hear,” she said.

Anthony Mirisciotta, general manager of GrowFood Carolina, a Coastal Conservation League initiative based in Charleston that supports local farmers, said he hopes the produce grown at the farm will have a South Carolina label to distinguish itself from food grown elsewhere. But with international produce brands like Mastronardi being part of the initiative, he said he worries that the local availability of the produce might be lost along the way.

“I’m not sure it’s going to do much for elevating the agricultural presence for the state of South Carolina,” he said.

He said he is not expecting much collaboration but hoping for a “pleasant, symbiotic relationship.”

“The greatest hope is to get as much shared knowledge as we all can continue to have to elevate and further South Carolina agriculture,” Mirisciotta said.

‘Embracing the idea’

Hampton County officials who helped to secure the Agricultural Technology Campus are certain it will benefit most, if not all, residents.

Hampton County Council Chairman Clay Bishop said most people he’s spoken with “share the same sentiment that (the campus) has the potential to make Hampton County a mecca of agriculture in the region and additional opportunities will come because of it.”

He previously said it will turn the infamous “Corridor of Shame” into the “Corridor of Fame.”

Bishop emphasized that the campus and local farmers are not likely to sell to the same customers, so there’s potential for local farms to use the co-packing facility once it’s operating. And local officials — especially Hampton County Council — will ensure residents’ opinions are heard while the campus is being built and after.

“It seems like moreover it’s going to be good for everybody,” Bishop said. “It also seems like most local farmers are embracing the idea.”

State Rep. Shedron Williams, who lives in Hampton County and was involved in the early stages of planning the agriculture campus, did not return a request for comment.

What are opportunity zones?

Created by Congress with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the program gives tax breaks to private investors who put money into funds to develop in “economically-distressed” communities deemed opportunity zones, according to the U.S. Economic Development Division. One of the bill’s original sponsors was South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.

Ahead of this year’s election, President Donald Trump is pushing expansions of opportunity zones across the nation, and his administration says the zones have brought $75 billion in private investment to distressed communities as a way to combat poverty, according to a McClatchy story.

There are 135 eligible opportunity zones in South Carolina. Alex Clark, spokesperson for South Carolina’s Department of Commerce, said there is no database of opportunity zone projects, as investors do not have to register if they are involved in a project. So there’s no way to know how many active zones South Carolina has.

Some Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, are calling for revisions to the program, saying it has yet to be proven whether opportunity zones are relieving poverty or helping disadvantaged communities like they were created to do, the article said.

Lana Ferguson typically covers stories in northern Beaufort County, Jasper County, and Sun City-Hilton Head. She first joined The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette in 2018 as a crime and breaking news reporter. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was the editor-in-chief of the daily student newspaper. Lana was also a fellow at the University of South Carolina’s Media Law School in 2019.
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Kate Hidalgo Bellows covers workforce and livability issues in Beaufort County for The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. A graduate of the University of Virginia and a native of Fairfax City, Virginia, she moved to the Lowcountry to write for The Island Packet as a Report for America corps member in May 2020. She has written for The New York Times, The Patriot-News, and Charlottesville Tomorrow, and is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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