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Farmer in Welch sees local food as key to revitalizing coal town business


Charleston Gazette-Mail

WELCH, W.Va.  — Where some residents see empty, abandoned buildings in McDowell County, Joel McKinney sees the future of food.

Joel McKinney tends tower gardens at Roadside Farms. Lettuce, kale and bok choy currently grow in 16 towers, stacked 11 pots high. At the bottom of each tower is a reservoir, filled with water and nutrients, and a pump.
(Photo by Jennifer Gardner)
He sees rows upon rows of stacked beds of lettuce — floating on foam boards receiving light by LEDs.

He sees a way to feed his community’s schools and turn a profit at the same time.

He established Roadside Farms in 2014, using an untraditional farming technique to bring a localized food economy to McDowell and help provide more fresh food to his mother’s food bank.

Now, he plans to take it a step further.

McKinney grew up in McDowell, where his mother runs the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank in a former grocery store and where his father retired from the coalfields and gives tours of an abandoned mine on occasion.

Like many of his classmates, McKinney left the county after high school. He said he joined the Navy to “see the world” and find opportunity elsewhere.

At 23, he got out and jumped from job to job in West Virginia, then he tried to return to military life in a different branch. Bored with civilian life, he signed up for the U.S. Army. But the day he was scheduled to be sworn in, he received a job offer from a local railroad firm and changed his mind.

The new job kept him busy with travel. When he wasn’t working out of town, he said he spent his off time “partying and drinking” until he was 27. He was arrested, charged with driving under the influence and was sent home to McDowell for 90 days.

Pointing to a tower with little holes sprouting vegetables and herbs without any dirt he said, “When I came back here, Mom had one of these, and it was only five pots high.”

The method is called hydroponics. McKinney said he thought it was interesting and started playing around with the science.

Back on the job, the man who longed for adventure on the road found he missed home. He returned to McDowell to start college and continued to play with the hydroponic farming technique.

“After a while, I thought, ‘This thing may really work,’” McKinney said.

He started building. Now, next to Five Loaves and Two Fishes, he has a high tunnel. Lettuce, kale and bok choy currently grow in 16 towers, stacked 11 pots high. At the bottom of each tower is a reservoir, filled with water and nutrients, and a pump.

By growing upward, McKinney is able to get more square footage out of a smaller space. Where some can only grow one plant, he can grow more than 10 times that much.

He’s grown other vegetables in the towers before, but he said greens work best.

His tomatoes also grow upward, like most, but each vine stems from a black bucket, also filled with water and nutrients like the towers.

The lettuce floats on a piece of foam, purchased from a hardware store and punctured with holes, in an old garden bed filled with water. When McKinney lifts the foam board, the roots of the lettuce are exposed. He sells the bright green leaves for $2 to $5 a head.

The greens go to a friend’s fresh food delivery program, and the lettuce goes to McDowell and Mercer County schools through the West Virginia Farm to School program.

Selling to schools has given him an opportunity to educate children about the importance of fresh food and how he grows it using the farming method.

“I say, ‘We’re not going to use any dirt, and we’re going to grow just using water,’” McKinney said, describing how he explains the complex idea of hydroponics to kids.

While temperature is fairly easy to regulate in a high tunnel with a heater, McKinney said he’s found a way to make the process more efficient.

He plans to move his crops indoors this year, turning an unused refrigeration unit in the food bank into an interior greenhouse of sorts with rows upon rows of floating beds of lettuce. The result will be similar to the floating beds in the high tunnel, but with limited space indoors, the beds will be stacked upon one another.

The new space will give him about 600 cubic feet of crops, which he estimated will produce about 2,500 heads of lettuce a month.

“I’m going to make sure it gets the light it needs using LED lights,” McKinney said. “It’s an initial heavy investment, but over about the course of two years, they pay for themselves.”

In the short-term he’ll continue selling produce to area schools. He also hopes to expand his sales to schools in surrounding counties as well as restaurants, hospitals and prisons.

But looking into the future, he said he sees even greater potential for a growing business that will help his community grow in other ways. He said he believes hydroponics could be especially beneficial to communities like McDowell, where residents often struggle to find fresh foods after the downfall of the coal industry led to a loss of businesses, including grocery stores.

While some residents and leaders still have hope in the coal industry’s return, McKinney is skeptical.

“It’s instilling hope in broken communities,” he said. “Nobody wants to do anything new — any new projects and marketing subsidies for entrepreneurship or anything.”

West Virginia has unique challenges when it comes to farming. The ground isn’t always fertile, the soil can be rocky, the terrain uneven. But McKinney said there’s opportunity to grow where businesses were lost — in abandoned or empty buildings.

He said an ideal space would be an old, former apartment complex with four or five levels. The bottom floor would act as the pumping station for the return water, and the top stories would be where produce grew.

“Just sell me your building, I’ll fix it up,” he tells people.

Some of those would-be buyers tell him they’re still hopeful that when the coal industry returns, they can use the buildings to re-open their businesses and make more money than McKinney is willing to pay.

Sometimes, his vision is a hard sell. But eventually, as the hydroponics business diversifies, McKinney said he hopes to hire workers and grow his business and his town.

For now, he and his girlfriend have their hands full.

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