Hydroponics Feed Struggling Coal Mining Communities

© Jena Cumbo / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted October 19, 2016

"Right here I can grow 44 plants, whereas somebody growing in the ground can only grow four."

Hard times have fallen on coal mining communities across the country, as widespread layoffs sweep the industry, leaving many families unable to afford healthy food. This epidemic inspired one farmer in McDowell County, West Virginia to come up with an innovative way to feed his community using limited real estate.

Joel McKinney, a resident of one of the state's most struggling areas, built his own small-scale farm in the parking lot of a local food bank, using a vertical method to grow produce. McKinney utilizes 18 white towers and a method called hydroponics, through which plant roots are flooded with nutrients using a water blend– nurturing vegetables without soil.

"Right here I can grow 44 plants, whereas somebody growing in the ground can only grow four," McKinney tells NPR of the futuristic farming method currently being used by forward-thinking farmers from the heart of Indiana to the MIT campus.

In recent years, the young farmer has seen his community's financial state decline rapidly as thousands have been laid off from their coal industry jobs. In West Virginia, the unemployment rate is nearly three times that of the entire nation, and in McDowell County alone the current economic state has been compared to the Great Depression by financial analysts. To make matters worse, the county's Walmart Supercenter was shuttered at the start of the year, forcing residents—many of whom lack vehicles—to travel up to an hour away for groceries.

McKinney currently sells lettuce to the town's high school and donates produce to the food pantry. He hopes to join forces with other local farmers to create a town farmers' market that accepts food stamps.

The enterprising farmer also aspires to teach his methods to the community, empowering others to provide for themselves: "People have the ability to grow their own food. I want to help them learn to market their product and earn some money." Land, soil, and fertilizer: not required.

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