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 8-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. | (Courtesy Narratively)
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 '50s when coal was booming, McDowell's population was over 100,000. In 2017 that number has dropped below 20,000. 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. | (Courtesy Narratively)
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 40. This is in large part due to the dramatic decline of jobs over the last 50 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 20-by-5-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 10 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.'"