Tons of heavenly produce are grown and sold year-round at Paradise Farms, perched on the site of a former trailer park adjacent to what was once the Chew Chat Inn, a popular hangout on the west edge of Dunbar back in the 1970s. None of the land beneath the urban farming operation is used as a growing medium for vegetable production.
At the center of the operation are two of 96-by-30-foot greenhouses — one devoted entirely to hydroponically grown vegetables, and the other making use of both hydroponic towers and raised-bed garden plots. On the grounds outside the greenhouses, a series of raised bed planters support additional production and a large open-sided shed provides a place for produce to be washed, sorted, packed and refrigerated.
Paradise Farms is a Good Agricultural Practices-certified farm, meaning it is audited annually to ensure that it follows U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety guidelines in growing and handling the vegetables it grows.
Tomatoes set out in March produce fruit from vines rising 16 feet above the floor of one greenhouse, while in the other, lettuce seedlings placed in hydroponic channels can grow to market-ready proportions in only 10 days.
Produce available at this time of year includes at least three varieties of lettuce, cucumbers, cherry and slicer-sized tomatoes, peppers, radishes, chard, summer and zucchini squash, collards, kale, okra, eggplant and white, orange and purple carrots, as well as such herbs and spices as basil, thyme, oregano and ginger.
“Through the winter, we’ll have plenty of lettuce, kale, mustard greens chard and basil,” said Joey Aloi, Paradise Farms’ marketing director.
A project of the nonprofit Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action (KISRA), spawned by nearby Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church, Paradise Farms began to take root eight years ago. The idea was to provide the public with access to fresh, locally grown produce by selling vegetables from Paradise Farms to restaurants involved in the budding farm-to-table movement and nearby farmers markets.
“The local food movement has really taken off in the past couple of years,” Aloi said. “We’ve been trying to do a little more every year, but we’ve been unable to grow fast enough to keep up with demand.”
“We’re are probably going to have to get bigger,” said Mike Easter, Paradise Farms manager.
Arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant closures and curtailments to restaurants and other former wholesale clients has changed that sales model. “Our wholesale business is way down, but our retail sales are up about 650 percent,” Easter said.
Paradise Farms delivers produce to a number of locations in Kanawha and neighboring counties.
“Today, we delivered 30 four-pound boxes of produce to the medical clinic at Boone Memorial Hospital, where fresh vegetables are being prescribed for patients with diabetes and heart issues,” Aloi said in a recent interview. “We also deliver to a Charleston weight loss clinic.”
As Aloi spoke, other Paradise Farms staffers filled 20-pound boxes of produce for delivery to a Cross Lanes day care facility. Hundreds of boxes of produce have also gone to the Mountaineer Food Bank at Gassaway. The urban farming operation participates in the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, which delivers online-ordered produce from local growers to pick-up sites stretching from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Huntington, including Paradise Farms and Charleston’s Capitol Market.
Pop-up sales are held at locations across the Kanawha Valley, and customers are welcome to buy fresh produce at the urban farm, located at 131 Perkins Avenue in Dunbar, a short distance from the Shawnee Sports Complex, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. To make sure the produce being sought is available, call Paradise Farms at 304-395-6675.
Another key goal of Paradise Farms is to provide training and jobs in urban farming to people transitioning into the workforce from incarceration or rehabilitation. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that program is on hiatus.
About 75 people had taken part in the training before the pandemic arrived, according to Tur’e Johnson, Paradise Farms’ assistant manager and lead educator.
While a relative few ended up pursuing jobs in agriculture-related fields, others went into food preparation and service, recovery coaching or totally unrelated fields. “Our main goal here is to give people a second chance,” he said. “They need a little time to adjust to being on their own again and to figure out what they want to do next.”
“You don’t need a lot of land to produce a lot of food,” said Aloi. “Agriculture could play a big role in Appalachia’s economic transition.”
While agriculture has a lot of potential for the region and can be rewarding, “farming on your own may be one of the hardest jobs you can have,” Aloi said. “You have to stay on top of everything you’re growing and deal with whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at you — and the prices for what you grow can fluctuate wildly.”