Farming conjures images of vast fields, rows of stuff coming out of the ground. Or bales of hay. Whatever farmers do. It’s all outside. But for how long?
The possible future can be found squarely in Kanawha City, beside the in-process-of-repair MacCorkle Avenue. Run by fledgling entrepreneur Matt Hammack, it’s called Oh My Greens and produces many times the quantity of vegetables grown in the ground, at a fraction of the traditional farming cost.
The Gazette-Mail profiled Hammack last summer, when he and mother Mary Anne Hammack and father Mark were still selling their microgreens at the Capitol Market.
For those old enough to remember the 1970s sitcom “The Jeffersons,” Hammack and crew are “movin’ on up.” They have leased the greenhouse since the middle of March, tucked in behind The Juice Box at 4614 MacCorkle Ave.
Microgreens are just what their name implies. They are vegetables — broccoli, peas, radishes, you name it — allowed to grow only 1 to 3 inches. Seeds used are nearly 100% guaranteed to produce a high yield, but if the plants weren’t snipped early, they would grow to full versions of themselves.
Just with less-concentrated nutrients, because the good stuff will disperse into the larger plant.
“One ounce of the broccoli I grow has as much nutrients as 2 1/2 pounds of mature broccoli,” Hammack said Monday as a warm sun failed to make his climate-controlled greenhouse uncomfortable. “Indoor farming is the future, and I plan to be at the head of that in the state of West Virginia.”
White plastic towers, hollow inside, stand everywhere in Hammack’s greenhouse, with slots for vegetation on the side. Roots inside hang from a small base of rockwool, a nonsoil material. The vegetables receive a mist of water/nutrients for three minutes, pumped upward from a reservoir tower base. Twelve minutes later, they receive another three-minute misting. By then, the roots have taken in more oxygen. And the beat goes on.
The only dirt to be found near the greenhouse is under the grass of adjoining lots. Also, not all vegetables fall under the “microgreen” slot. A romaine lettuce leaf growing from the tower looks like a regular lettuce leaf, albeit with a string of hanging roots. Their prodigious length reminds one of Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.”
A cousin to Hammack’s method is hydroponics, in which the roots are constantly in water. Anything from tomatoes to marijuana can be grown that way.
“I grow 30% faster than hydroponics and use 90% less water,” Hammack said.
Mother Mary Anne Hammack, 60, is not surprised by her son’s industriousness.
“Matt’s always been innovative,” she said. “I’m absolutely super-proud of him. When he finds something he’s interested in, he dives right in and becomes good at it.”
His vegetable-eating prowess is family legend.
“He’s the youngest of five kids and was always the one to eat his vegetables first,” she said. “I used to call friends over and say, ‘Watch Matt eat!’ ”
The fascination with vegetables never abated entirely, but other career pursuits distracted him. Then, after boning up on the wonders of microgreens, an epiphany hit when a $1,400 COVID-19 stimulus check hit his bank account. He did what most Americans did — demolish the living and dining rooms of his home so he could install a sophisticated system of growing tiny vegetables.
Now with a state-of-the-art growing space, he is truly in business.
Fifty residential customers, from Charleston to Barboursville, receive deliveries from either Matt or Mary Anne. Ten restaurants, including his next-door neighbor, The Juice Box, carry his product at their two locations. They also may be purchased at the Capitol Market on Saturdays, and at Drug Emporium’s Healthy Life markets, among others.
His father, Mark, handles the customer-friendly website, managing customer accounts, marketing and the like. The website is www.ohmygreens.app.
“Shop our website, leave a cooler on the porch on the following Friday and receive our delicious greens in eco-friendly packaging,” Hammack said. “Because practicing sustainability is one of our key standard practices.”
Hammack has big dreams. He wants to franchise Oh My Greens to out-of-state locations, while keeping Charleston as a home base; to continue working on a tower system that can be completely operated by cellphone; and weighing options from investors who already have approached him.
“I just would’ve had to give up too much,” he told the Gazette-Mail last year. “Oh My Greens is my baby, and I really wanted to stay in charge of its future. The way I looked at it, I was investing in me.”
Hammack wants to build aeroponic systems in schools and teach children how to farm year-round. He thinks indoor-grown, smaller-scale plants are the future partly because so much soil has been farmed out of nutrients and contaminated with chemicals.
He calls his method Controlled Environment Agriculture.
“It’s a technology-based approach to food production,” he said. “Protecting crops from outdoor elements and providing optimal growing conditions.”
While his dreams involve expanding outside Kanawha City, for now, he wants to make the most of his still-new location. June plans call for the greenhouse to be open from 6 to 9 p.m. on select nights, complete with food trucks, music, local vendors and artists.