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USDA halts produce growing plan at Phipps Bend due to public access

April 25th, 2014 12:24 am by Jeff Bobo

USDA halts produce growing plan at Phipps Bend due to public access

SURGOINSVILLE — A plan by a Grainger County produce grower to plant about 85 acres of bell peppers on leased property at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park has been derailed by the feds.

In January, the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board gave its final approval for a contract with R&C Farms of Grainger County to lease 85 acres in the Phipps Bend floodplain for $250 per acre annually. It was to be a five-year lease with an option for another five years.

The property can't be used for any construction, and IDB members felt the produce growing lease was a good way to utilize that property and raise funds for improvements, upkeep and other projects at the industrial park.

Hawkins County Industrial Developer Lynn Lawson told the IDB Thursday that R&C's plan to grow bell peppers at the industrial park had been rejected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"USDA Food Safety would not approve the property because of the walking trails and horse riding trails that are down there," Lawson said. "They try to restrict any form of public access where produce is being grown, and they'd have to keep a gate locked down there keeping people out. Of course, we've got it set up for horse riding and walkers and joggers."

Lawson said R&C is trying to come up with an alternative crop for the Phipps Bend floodplain property that wouldn't be restricted by the USDA, and he is expecting to hear from them next week.

For now, however, the lease contract is on hold.

Lawson said the reason USDA approval is needed is that R&C sells its produce at the exchange in Morristown, where area grocery stores including Ingles and Food City purchase produce.

If it was for a farmers market or private sales, the USDA wouldn't be a factor.

"If its food-related and it goes out and is distributed to the public, public access has to be denied (to the growing property)," Lawson said.

Some board members were critical of the USDA "over-regulation."

"You can bring stuff in from Mexico, but you can't get it grown in Surgoinsville," said board member Bill Lyons.

Board members suggested closing public access to the property, but IDB chairman Larry Elkins said that would create problems with another federal agency — the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Event though the TVA gave the property to Hawkins County for creation of the industrial park, it still has quite a bit of authority over what goes on there.

For example, it took Lawson about three months to acquire TVA approval to allow the R&C farming project in the floodplain.

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