First-of-its-kind agricultural center a boon to Hampton County, SC consumers

EARLY BRANCH — Billed as the nation’s largest investment in an opportunity zone development, a high-tech agricultural campus announced Wednesday aims to ensure a safer and more reliable food source for South Carolina consumers while bringing hundreds of jobs to this rural part of the Lowcountry.

The $314 million Agriculture Technology Campus will be a joint development of finance group GEM Opportunity Fund and a trio of food and packaging firms that will grow produce in environmentally controlled greenhouses on the 1,000-acre site at the Southern Carolina Industrial Campus in Hampton County.

The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. because it will also include an on-site packaging facility and distribution center, so vegtables grown at the campus can be prepared and shipped year-round to grocery stores throughout the region. The ag-tech center will begin operations in 2022 and expects to employ 1,500 people by 2025.

Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s agriculture commissioner, called the project “transformative,” adding the large-scale controlled growing environment “will conserve land and water and offer South Carolinians more chances to buy local produce.”

He added that growing and sourcing foods locally helps to ensure food supply-chain security, a need amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zeb Portanova, CEO of GEM Opportunity Fund, said such a project has been in the works for a couple of years, but didn’t start to come together until Mastronardi, a Canadian firm that grows tomatoes under the Sunset label, packaging giant LiDestri Food and Drink and produce grower Clear Water Farms came to the table in recent months.

Portanova said the locally grown berries and vegetables will reduce reliance on imports from Mexico and provide a longer shelf life than produce grown in other countries. Food grown at the site will be pesticide free and the ag-tech campus will employ sustainable practices such as using rainwater to irrigate greenhouses. Growing food indoors uses at least half the water as outdoor crops and every acre cultivated indoors would require 25-35 acres of farmland, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. 

The ag-tech campus will be built in an opportunity zone — a federal program that provides tax breaks for developers in low-income urban and rural communities. It will be the second such project in Hampton County for GEM CEO Zeb Portanova, who earlier this year announced a $30 million hemp growing and processing facility to be built in the same industrial park by subsidiary Yield Scientific. That project is supposed to create 107 jobs.

“This is the exact sort of investment we expected in creating Opportunity Zones, and is a classic example of the potential for zones across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who helped create the opportunity zone legislation. “These 1,500 new full-time jobs and 500 seasonal jobs will help power rural Hampton County’s economy for years to come, helping a historically underserved community build a better future for hard-working South Carolinians.”