How 20 Tomato Plants Revived a Community

In 2008, Danny Swan was a junior at Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. The town was a shadow of its former self as a thriving hub for the coal and steel industries. As America turned to more green energy and offshore production, jobs and people abandoned the town. Left behind were abandoned buildings, crime and a depressed community.

Danny Swan spent his time between classes gardening in the backyard of the university residence he lived in and volunteering at an after-school program for inner-city kids. He was in search of a way to expand the concrete urban world of the children he worked with. His solution was found right across the street from the chapel that housed the program, underneath a highway overpass.

The overgrown land was once the site of a thriving neighborhood of closely set houses. Like much of the rest of the town, it was now abandoned, and at the center of one of the highest crime areas of East Wheeling. Swan, however, saw it as a perfect spot for a garden.

With permission granted from the West Virginia Division of Highways, Swan and the kids started getting their hands dirty. They dug up the land, finding remnants of the homes and the inhabitants’ belongings that have long since abandoned the area. Within a few weeks, 20 tomato plants were forced into the resistant ground.

Five years later, that same area is now producing 20, 000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables.

Farm 18, named for its location on 18th Street, is a success story of urban farming. With more depressed areas without even a simple grocery store, residents in these cities and towns all across the country are stuck in food deserts, which lack fresh fruit and vegetables. These same areas are also the home of the most vulnerable among us who lack resources to move elsewhere. This leads to fewer food choices, which are more expensive and less healthy.

For the residents of Wheeling, West Virginia, they now have better choices at their doorstep.

By the time Swan graduated, residents were helping with the Farm 18 community garden, which was soon producing everything from tomatoes to squash to spinach. He soon partnered up with New York City transplant and Harvard Business School grad Kenneth Peralta to create Grow Ohio Valley, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “strengthen Ohio Valley communities, families, and residents through growing food, sustainable living, and economic development.” They have raised $200,000 to fund their initiatives.

Today, Farm 18 serves as the hub for community produce that is sold on food carts around the town, as well as at the Saturday farmer’s market from May through the end of October. It is also a training ground for children and the site for workshops for 400 teen and university students. The site has several chicken coops, providing fresh eggs for the community as well.

There are also 20 additional smaller community gardens throughout the city, all built on abandoned land.

With the weather getting cooler, Grow Ohio Valley is currently preparing for winter by laying the infrastructure for greenhouses to be built a few blocks away on 14th street. They have also received a grant to build an urban apple orchard, which will be located on five unusable lots in the north part of the city. In addition to apple trees, they will be planting blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Expected to be at full capacity by 2018, the orchard will, at a minimum, be able to provide enough apples for the entire school district, saving it $30,000 per year.

Swan and Peralta’s efforts have made a significant change in the community. Residents that receive food assistance are able to use their benefits to purchase the organic fruits and vegetables at a 50 percent discount. Through their educational programs for the local schools and universities, they are providing the community with the ability to sustain their efforts, as well as economic viability. They are also reclaiming abandoned lands to build a botanical garden, as well as entire neighborhoods to establish training centers and additional land for farming.

A city that once exported coal and steel is well on its way to becoming the source of organic food for thousands of local people. And it all started with a college student, a few local children, and 20 tomato plants under an overpass.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

99 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S3 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jerome S
Jerome S3 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Great story. Thank you for sharing!

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robin B.
Rob B3 years ago

Great story. And please notice this is not a government program. This is an idea and an initiative of an individual. And it will do just fine if the government stays out of it and doesn't decide that letting children work in the garden is a violation of child labor or that everyone in the community needs to be part of a union or offered healthcare or some other idiotic interference. Less government, more individual initiative.

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John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

WTG young man.

What's he going to do for an encore?

You notice this wasn't done by a politician.

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Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Debra G.
Debra G3 years ago

I'm glad this is happening in a food desert, but people still need jobs. Those "job creators" have been rolling in their capital gains without doing squat for the public.

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