Reclaiming the Abandoned: Ohio Valley Grows Local Food Economy

Jun 12, 2014

**Music by Sugar Short Wave.

Like many towns across much of the state, Wheeling is home to a lot of abandoned, depressed, impoverished areas susceptible to crime and drug epidemics. The region has depended largely on the coal and steel industries, which are declining. The population is decreasing along with the economy and the vitality of the communities.

A small group is tackling several major projects with the hope of changing all of that. The projects all center around infusing the town with locally grown foods, and educational opportunities to teach residents how these foods are grown. There are eight initiatives already in motion and the fledgling non-profit, Grow Ohio Valley, has raised more than $200,000 so far to support their efforts. They hope that instead of being known as a dying town, Wheeling can become a regional food production hub.

Danny Swan walks along the street of a neighborhood in the middle of Wheeling that's long been forgotten.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

Grow Ohio Valley

A lot of the impetus for the growth in the local food economy has come from Danny Swan, co-founder of Grow Ohio Valley (GrowOV). He came to Wheeling through Jesuit University. He hails from Morgantown. He’s really passionate about growing food, educating youth, and about his community. He says GrowOV is fundamentally about growing and distributing quality foods into neighborhoods, and teaching people, especially kids, where and how that food is made.

Executive director of GrowOV is Kenneth Peralta. A filmmaker with an MBA from Harvard Business School, Peralta blew in from New York City several years ago with a mission to explore food and sustainability. Lucky Wheeling. Since he got here, he’s co-authored a Benedum-funded study that outlined the region’s potential to develop a local food economy.

Now armed with blueprints of how to build healthy, sustainable, economically-strong communities, GrowOV is putting eight ideas in motion.

  1. Farm 18

It’s called “Farm 18” because it’s on 18th street in Wheeling. Farm 18 has been growing for about 5 years now and is currently the nonprofit’s primary production and training ground. The farm, located under a highway overpass, produces eggs, fruits, and veggies. Last year, the acre plot produced an estimated 10,000 pounds of organic produce, sold and distributed throughout the community. This year, Swan said, with a lot of volunteer effort and resources, they hope to produce 20,000. And all of these organic vegetables are being grown on top of filled-in foundations of a former neighborhood.

  1. Youth Outreach and Summer Camps

Swan and Peralta agree, continuing to develop aand deploy the educational elements of GrowOV is a top priority. This summer plans are in motion to launch a full docket of educational programs for ages 5-18. These programs will focus on gardening, healthy living, and sustainability.

“In the end that’s where the changes come from, is changing [kids’] mindsets,” Peralta said.

Site location of planned Vineyard Hills Orchard.
Credit Grow Ohio Valley

  1. Vineyard Hills Orchard – a five-acre urban apple orchard

The nonprofit applied for and was awarded a grant through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. The urban orchard proposal was awarded the highest possible award of $25,000 to get the project started. Fencing and 1,000 dwarf apple trees, as well as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries will be constructed and planted this spring across what are currently five vacant and unusable acres in North Wheeling hills. GrowOV is working with the Wheeling Housing Authority who owns the property.

Five Apple Factoids:

1. It’s estimated that from 2000 to 2020 the consumption of apples, per capita, will increase by nearly 8 percent. (USDA)

2. Americans eat nearly 16 pounds of apples each year (USDA Census)

3. Wheeling residents consume 223 tons per year, or about 9,300 bushels (48 lbs/bushel)

4. Ohio County School District paid $24/bushel of apples last year (about $30,000/year)

5. On 4 acres, GrowOV projects to grow between 1,200 – 3,200 bushels per year (trees will yield at full capacity in 2018).

  1. Linclon Meadow Organic Farm & Training Center

GrowOV has plans to reclaim an abandoned neighborhood that was torn down in the 1970s and has now grown into a forest in the Middle of Wheeling. They want to take the existing elements, the overgrown roads and these pretty-much-perfect public stairways with hand rails that traverse the entire hill, and turn them into Wheeling Botanical Garden. The plan is to develop over the next several years vegetable, medicinal, and flower gardens, fruit and nut trees, nature trails complete with historical and informative signage, as well as create a teaching garden in the meadow that overlooks the Ohio Valley.

Brandon W. Holmes in front of the building on top of Wheeling Hills that will become Friendly City Foods and the distribution hub for Black Swan Organics, GrowOV's CSA.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

  1. Friendly City Foods – A Consignment Farmers Market/Health Food Store

GrowOV is taking a page from the Wild Ramp in Huntington, and creating this year-round combined consignment farmers market/retail local, healthy, natural food store slated to open in July. This building which was recently gifted to GrowOV from another Wheeling-based nonprofit, House of the Carpenter, will also serve as a distribution spot for GrowOV’s super-CSA entitled Black Swan Organics. (For those unfamiliar, CSA = Community Sustained Agriculture. Individuals purchase a subscription, and gain access to weekly distributions of produce from local farms or producers. Distribution is scheduled to begin June 18th.)

 

Looking onto the future East Wheeling community greenhouse at the corner of 14th and Wood streets.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

  1. Four-Season Garden and Greenhouse

$22,000 in grants and donations from the Hess Foundation and others has already been awarded to support this project. On the corner of 14th and Wood streets in East Wheeling, construction is already underway. The community greenhouse gets at the heart of what GrowOV is all about because it’s a year-round growing facility building with sustainable building techniques on historic remnants in the heart of a neighborhood in need of some love. The building will be used by residents as a place to grow foods to be sold in town.

Mobile Market
Credit Grow Ohio Valley

  1. Mobile Markets/Farm Stands

GrowOV started putting up farm stands in East Wheeling in 2013. This year they hope to launch a program that allows consumers to receive a 50 percent discount on purchases made using their Food Stamps. With $8,500 in grants from WV Food and Farm Coalition and the Community Impact Fund, Grow OV is sending out roving farm stands complete with cold storage options which sell to everyone from low-income households to high-rise buildings that house elderly residents.

  1. Community Garden Micro Grants

There are about twenty small community gardens growing in Wheeling now, where five years ago, there were just many empty lots in neighborhoods known as a drug and crime hotspots. GrowOV wants to continue the trend by continuing to provide micro-grants and a “Community Garden Retention Program.” The Community Impact Fund has contributed $1,500 to support the effort. Mini-grants are awarded to community gardens that want to grow food, and special consideration is given to applicants who want to grow surplus food to sell at market.