- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

DUBLIN, Va. (AP) - It’s not hard to guess why Nelson Banes, of Max Meadows, was sitting at a table inside Red Sun Farm’s job fair at New River Community College: He needs work.

Like many of the job seekers who flocked to hear about opportunities at the region’s newest major employer, Banes is a longtime gardener and jumped at the chance to work at Red Sun’s new high tech greenhouse.

With plans to get the first crop in the ground by July, director of operations Jay Abbott said Red Sun is about to go on a hiring spree. Pretty soon, he expects to employ between 75 and 100 people.

And that’s just the beginning.

Red Sun, a subsidiary of Mexican-based vegetable grower Agricola El Rosal, announced plans in March 2013 to open its first American facility this summer. It’s the first business to build in the long vacant, 1,000-acre New River Valley Commerce Park just down the road from the community college. With similar operations in Canada and Mexico, the company is already a major vegetable supplier to some of the largest grocery store chains in the country.

In an attempt to get closer to its customers, Red Sun said it was going to build a facility in Dublin that would supply tomatoes to Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Red Sun project is about to open the door to an entire new industry as it’s the first commercial greenhouse operation to set up shop in the New River Valley, according to New River Valley Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Aric Bopp.

In a region that was hit hard by the collapse of the American manufacturing industry, new jobs like these are celebrated with the kind of fanfare that brought the governor to town.

Phase I of the $40 million project is wrapping up now and will include 18 acres of glass-covered greenhouse space.

Work on Phase II should start next year, adding 12 acres, and after that Phase III will bring another 18 acres.

According to a contract the company signed as part of an incentives package with local governments, the greenhouse will eventually employ 205 full-time workers, 15 of whom must be in management positions with salaries greater than $40,000 per year. The average wage for the rest of the company’s workforce must be at least $12 per hour.

Abbott said it will grow 600,000 tomato plants, each of which will be about 45 feet long. The entire facility will produce 30 million pounds of tomatoes every season.

“That’s what we’re hoping for: a lot of tomatoes,” Abbott said.

For this kind of greenhouse to be successful, Red Sun Chief Operating Officer Carlos Visconti said it’s going to need to develop a skilled local workforce. A lot of the jobs are similar to what you would find in more traditional manufacturing setting, but the company is going to bring in experts to train local hires on the finer points of caring for the plants.

“You cannot put this project in front of people who don’t know how to handle these plants. It’s not just picking tomatoes,” Visconti said. “The people who work in the farm are the tomato whisperers. They’re people who know and connect with the plant and know how to treat the plant. There are so many things in terms of how to handle it: leafing the plant, what you need to cut, when you need to pick it, how much water has to go there, how you have to feed it. To have that knowledge takes time.”

Abbott, who was one of the company’s first hires for the Dublin facility, comes from a manufacturing background and admitted he doesn’t have much of a green thumb. He’ll be handling the operations side of things, while a Master Grower is in charge of making sure the plants keep producing.

After just a year at Red Sun, the company culture is starting to rub off on him.

The license plate on Abbott’s SUV reads “TOMATO,” and he’s full of helpful tips: don’t store your tomatoes in the refrigerator or near bananas, and when you’re making a BLT, reach for the sweeter cocoa variety.

As for whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable, Abbott understands both sides of the debate, but he sticks with Red Sun tradition and calls it a fruit. Visconti added if you’re not convinced, try one of their sweet cherry tomatoes and, “you will agree with me.”

___

Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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