KIMBALL — Passersby on U.S. 52 in Kimball in McDowell County often stare at some tall white towers beside the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank.
Sometimes they even stop to take a closer look.
Many are surprised to see plants poking their little heads from slits all around the towers.
But Joel McKinney, who sets up and maintains the towers, is always glad to talk about his work, which is called hydroponic growing.
This is a way to grow vegetables without soil, using water in this case, he said, and it has many advantages.
“The growing time is much shorter,” he said. “From the time I seed (a head of lettuce), it will be ready for harvest in about 35 days.”
Not only is the growing fast, it doesn’t take up as much space because the plants are going up instead of out, with dozens of plants on one tower.
“I can grow 44 heads of lettuce on a tower rather than four on the ground using the same space,” he said. “I am actually a vendor for Mercer County schools. I am growing 220 heads of Romaine lettuce for them.”
He also has an indoor growing operation, using large trays under lights.
McKinney’s mother, Linda, who runs the food bank, said the hydroponic way of growing in trays is good for people who are disabled or can’t bend over for whatever reason.
“Gardening is hard work,” she said. “The digging, weeding and hoeing. This can be done without that kind of work, and done sitting down.”
It’s also a good way for students to learn, she said, and they have worked in a class at Kimball Elementary School, helping students use a tower to grow lettuce.
“They loved it,” she said. “We made lettuce kabobs. They grew it, they prepared it and they ate it.”
For Joel McKinney, the hydroponic operation has, in a way, been a labor of love. The goal is to incorporate the operation, called Grow McDowell, with the food bank in order to provide produce for the needy and teach others to grow.
It’s also a project that fits in with his current academic goal of getting a degree in agri-business…