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West Virginia Finds Paradise in the Desert

“West Virginia is a traditional farmer’s state. If you look on our state flag, there are two professions — one is a miner, one is a farmer,” that’s what Tur’e Johnson, assistant manager and lead educator of Paradise Farms in West Dunbar, told us. Johnson found himself on the farm in a roundabout way. When Paradise Farms decided to go hydroponic, he was heading up the Information Technology Division for their umbrella organization KISRA. According to Johnson, they decided hydroponics had enough technology to warrant his involvement, so they asked him to give it a shot. “I gave it a shot. You know, I bricked some shots.” 

The sports metaphor comes first hand for Johnson, who spends any time he’s not on the farm officiating high school football, basketball, and softball. Driving from game to game, with no supermarket or corner store in sight for 30, 40 minutes at a time, it hit him: “There are all of these pockets of folks who don’t have access to what I have access to. If there’s something that I could find a solution to, it would be food scarcity.” 

The USDA defines a food desert as an area where at least 33% of the population lives without access to fresh, affordable food within one mile in cities or ten miles in rural areas. An estimated 23.5 million Americans are living in food deserts, many of them in West Virginia. Paradise Farms aims to change that in the neighborhood locals call “The Bottom, for many reasons that you can probably guess,” says Johnson. Located on land that was once a trailer park, surrounded by public housing, a church two blocks over, a sports complex, and a historic Black university down the street, Paradise Farms is a special kind of oasis for the people of West Dunbar. 

Hydroponics for the win with bibb lettuce, leaf lettuce, and kale growing happily. Photo: Mike Easter

On the face of it, the urban farm is two 96 by 30-foot greenhouses, one big shed, and some raised beds outside, but it’s what is inside that counts. The people who tend Paradise Farms’ glorious array of hydroponic produce are there for more than just vegetables. “We are a social enterprise of KISRA, the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action. We had a fatherhood and reentry program [for individuals leaving correctional facilities], and we needed to find ways to train our population and also be able to employ them. So that’s where Paradise Farms comes in,” Johnson explains. “KISRA, our main building was actually at one point a nightclub, with a very shadowed past. Turning a building from a nightclub that had violence attached to it, drugs attached to it — to turn that building into a place of hope —  it’s called the Empowerment Center for a reason. That whole dynamic there is really powerful.” 

Powerful indeed and the effects of such a mission reverberate throughout the community. Whether in the form of fresh produce donated to local daycares, nursing homes, and soup kitchens or packaged for distribution across the state through the Turnrow Appalachian Farms Collective, Paradise Farms is meeting West Virginia’s food desert dilemma with 400 – 450 pounds of fruit and vegetables every single week, powered by a skeleton crew of dedicated staff and volunteers who keep the intricate hydroponic growing systems online and on mission. 

Why hydroponics? Paradise Farms’ marketing director Joey Aloi told the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this year. “You can use hydroponics anywhere if you don’t trust the soil.” Benefits of hydroponics and aeroponics include water conservation, fewer weeds, less disease, less back pain, and more produce. “You don’t need a lot of land to produce a lot of food,” Aloi said. “Agriculture could play a big role in Appalachia’s economic transition,” And that’s the kind of economic transition that could transform Appalachia from a food desert into a garden of abundance.   

Tur’e Johnson harvests tomatoes from an 8-foot tall plant grown in a pot. Photo: Mike Easter

Still, nothing good comes easy, Johnson says. “A lot of folks think that hydroponics is this easy, set it and forget it, pressure cooker kind of setup and it’s definitely not.” There’s water flow, different pH levels, and nutrient solutions for each plant, temperature, and electric conductivity to consider. While Johnson grew up helping on his uncle’s small farm, he’d never worked with hydroponics. “I’m a sports guy so after a couple [of bricked] shots, it was only right that when the opportunity was brought to me to bring in somebody that had more experience, who had a wealth of knowledge that I did not have, I took it with open arms.” 

Johnson himself has plenty of experience in community building and education, which is evident in how he manages the programming at Paradise Farms. “We felt that if we were going to educate individuals on farming/gardening, we needed to be able to speak to every form of growing that is out there — your hydroponics, your aquaponics, your in-ground growing and also raised beds.” He says they moved away from aquaponics as the fish gave them some trouble, but they teach it all as they recognize that “not everybody is your six in the morning till six at night, tilling the ground, working the tractor kind of farmer. As technology advances, we’ve noticed a lot of that is falling to the wayside. You still have those generational farms, but a lot of folks are doing it on a smaller scale.” For folks who show interest in growing their own food, Paradise Farms provides tools and resources, whether in the form of raised beds or a home hydroponic setup.

Mustard greens and kale grow in a Nutrient Film Table (NFT) Hydroponic System. Photo: Joey Aloi

Though the pandemic has put its workforce development and ag training program on hold, the community is going strong at Paradise Farms. Johnson says, “You would think that COVID would stop traffic on the farm, but folks we’ve never seen have come knocking on our door. Our retail sales have gone through the roof.” While sales are good, it’s not about the money, it’s all about the people. When asked to share something surprising about Paradise Farms, Johnson smiled. “Just the fact that Paradise Farms is here. That’s been one of our biggest challenges, to be honest, folks not knowing that we are here. We are here. Tell your friends, tell your family. Come on back so we can enjoy your company.” 

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