Can Hydroponic Lettuce Save Coal Country?

Young people tend to talk about “getting out” of McDowell County, West Virginia. But one radical farmer is bringing life back to his struggling hometown.

Can Hydroponic Lettuce Save Coal Country?

This story is a collaboration between Narratively and Hungry, a podcast about the food we eat, the people who make it, and the inspiring stories surrounding food you don’t usually hear.

Joel McKinney, 33, is thick and tall, with tattooed arms and a backward baseball cap. There’s a restless demeanor exuding from beneath the militaristic dude-ness he must have picked up during his time in the Navy. He slides open the greenhouse door and a warm draft washes out.

On the north side of the greenhouse are two long rows of eight-foot-tall bright white PVC towers standing at attention. From each PVC pipe explodes scores of violently purple and green heads of lettuce growing vertically up the tube. Each plant sits askew in a little cup fitted into its respective hole in the tower. A steady trickle of electricity and water reverberate in the warm tunnel. These are McKinney’s hydroponic lettuce towers.

“People are so stuck on traditional agriculture, and that’s fine, it’s all great. But I’m not growing out, I’m growing up,” he says. “What I’m doin’ with the towers, it’s not just about hydroponics to me. It’s not just about growing food. To me, this thing embraces change.”

A scene off the main road going through McDowell.

The vibrant, futuristic setup is entirely unexpected in a place like McDowell, and that’s kinda the point for McKinney. McDowell is a remote coal county tucked away in rural West Virginia. Back in the late fifties when coal was booming, McDowell’s population was over 100,000. In 2017 that number has dropped below twenty thousand. It has made headlines over the last decade for its daunting economic hardships, rampant opioid use, and most recently, its overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But these headlines fail to cover creative people like McKinney who are responding to those circumstances.

McKinney cradles a deep green head of lettuce between his fingers. The towers each sit atop big black buckets with neat tubes running in between, making the greenhouse look like a room full of computer servers as curated by an obsessive farmer. Each bucket is filled with a nutrient-rich solution – water loaded with natural stuff the plants need to grow. A pump system carries the solution to the top of the tower, where it trickles down inside and is directed to the roots of each plant. The roots dangle into the passing solution and soak it all up. The solution then falls back to the bucket, and is cyclically pumped up to the top again. While the physics of it are simple, McKinney has taken extreme care to make these towers as efficient as possible.

McKinney served in the Navy as a machinist mate, and was honorably discharged after spending 2003 to 2007 aboard the USS Trenton. He went in as an engineer, devouring any manuals he could find and ravenously learning the technology of the ship’s systems. The old-school tech used on the ships – the steam-powered stuff, the electronics – captivated McKinney. He excelled among his peers and became the first E-3 Seaman with the title of qualified firearm supervisor in the 35-year history of the USS Trenton. He deployed to Lebanon, Beirut, facilitated an Israeli evacuation, traveled up and down Latin America, and has seen most of the United States.

Joel McKinney with his hydroponic towers.

Something you’d notice driving through McDowell is that there aren’t a whole lot of people McKinney’s age. You generally see children, and then people who look to be at least forty. This is in large part due to the dramatic decline of jobs over the last fifty years, which has forced adults to flee to urban areas in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, often sending money back to kids they left in McDowell to be raised by grandparents. The younger generation has seen the county rocked by floods, a recession, and an epidemic of opioid addiction that has deterred those who leave from ever coming back.

“I was forced to adapt,” McKinney says. After the Navy, McKinney went to work for the railroad. During the next seven years, he honed his skills in electrical engineering and operating machinery, but quickly plateaued and wound up unchallenged by the job. He got bored and started drinking heavily – “I have a really addictive personality,” he explains – and got a DUI. The DUI led to a suspension from his railroad job, during which time he wound up back in McDowell helping his mom Linda at their food bank. She had one of these towers lying around so, he did what he does best: He started tinkering.

As the coal industry declined, many people here turned to traditional farming for food and profit, but the runoff from the mines made it tough to grow anything, much less anything healthy. Byproducts like arsenic, selenium, mercury, and compaction often ravage otherwise fertile soil in coal-heavy towns. Even if you do produce enough crop to sell, McDowell is secluded enough that the time and money spent on transportation to a viable market would eat up any profits. Hydroponics provided McKinney a way to farm without using the contaminated water, and the cost is so low that folks in McDowell can afford to buy the resulting produce themselves, cutting out the need for costly transportation.

McKinney calculates that the 440 heads of lettuce he has growing in this roughly twenty-by-five-foot area take up less than one-eighth of the space it would take to grow in the ground and uses ninety percent less water. This means that farmers using McKinney’s systems could bypass tainted water, produce year-round, and multiply their crop by ten times each harvest. All without using pesticides, GMOs, or growth chemicals.

The local public school has become one of McKinney’s accounts and buys lettuce for their lunches. As part of the deal, he gets to teach a raucous group of six-year-olds about hydroponics by installing a tower in one of the classrooms. “Man, working on the railroad is a lot like working with kindergartners. But I’m a structured guy, I work with bullet points – so when you go from the military to working with kids. . .”

He fiddles with a tube feeding into one of the buckets and laughs. “I learn a lot from them. I can’t go in with kids and teach like, tropism and nitrogen cycles and covalent bonding, but you go in with kindergartners and you say, ‘okay well, this is lettuce. This is what lettuce should taste like.’”

“Oh my gosh, he thinks he’s horrible with the kids and he’s fantastic. I tell him he needs to be a teacher,” Kimball Elementary school teacher Sarah Diaz says. “Many of our kids are not exposed to varieties of food,” she adds. “So even simple things like a salad with homegrown vegetables and a homemade dressing, that’s a big deal. They love the flavor. We had so many kids coming away saying ‘I really like vegetables!’ Whereas before, they wouldn’t touch it!”

Diaz says the learning doesn’t stop after kindergarten, it has to become embedded in McDowell’s culture. “If we can get people like Joel to plant a fire in these kids and develop a program that allows them to grow with these systems and grow into it, I can see huge potential for change in the next couple generations.”

The question is whether people in McDowell will embrace the new system. McKinney admits that people in McDowell can be a tough bunch to work with because of their deep traditions and weathered attitudes. Folks in McDowell even describe themselves as “good people, but defensive.” This has a lot to do with decades of their livelihood (coal and other big industries) being outsourced, broken promises from the government, and media outlets that portray their home as a hellish wasteland waiting for politicians to come save them.

McKinney says the people of McDowell constantly surprise him with how on board they are with the hydroponics. “People can be pretty close-minded, but hey, man, I’ve been all over the world, these are very good people here in Appalachia.”

Hydroponic Lettuce Towers in Joel McKinney’s greenhouse.

Hydroponic projects in big cities get most of the media attention, focusing on people growing indoors without a lot of space. But it’s wildly useful in rural areas too. “This is absolutely sustainable here,” McKinney says. “It’s something anybody can do and now I’m training people of all ages how to pick this thing up and run with it.”

“The hydroponics is kinda’ a visual for the concept of change. I wanna bring some change into a rural poverty situation,” McKinney says, nodding his head and looking at a crop. “People will say opportunities don’t exist here. And I say, ‘you’re absolutely right. Create it.’ And that’s what we’re doin’, we’re creating a market.”

His operation is applicable to countless rural economies throughout Appalachia and the rest of the U.S. that are primed with mechanically-minded industry families who are in need of better food and sustainable incomes. Coal will not come back permanently. McKinney knows this, and the folks of McDowell know this too. Transitioning into simple yet futuristic agriculture could revolutionize their narrative.

McKinney shuts the door to the greenhouse. “Look,” he says frankly as he walks back across the cold lot. “I don’t believe that lettuce and strawberries are gonna save McDowell.”

Hydroponics are a beginning. An example that there is more. “Kids here, especially once they hit the junior high age, they just feel like there’s no hope, there’s no chance for change. So as soon as they can they say ‘let’s get out of McDowell.’

“I’m really trying to change that logic as best I can. I don’t think it’ll happen in my generation, but I’m hopin’ to kinda be the spark that initiated some change in this place ’cause I believe it can happen. It’s just gonna take a long time.”

Listen to the extended audio version of this story – featuring Senator Bernie Sanders – on the Hungry podcast. You can subscribe to Hungry on iTunes, Stitcher, your podcast app, or via