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BRUSHFORK — Doug Lusk has combined his knowledge of science, agriculture and nutrition to open a produce store in Brushfork that has the area’s only indoor hydroponic growing system.Called Hillbilly Farms, the store is located in Airport Square Shopping Center and opened last year offering hydroponic products as well as fresh, locally grown produce, fresh local eggs from free-range chickens and other items.But the plan is to expand his hydroponic system, which uses water rather than soil to provide fresh produce year round.
Lusk’s system has large tubes connected on shelves with water pumping through them. Holes are cut out along the top of each tube where the plant is placed in a container of small clay pebbles.“It’s more or less gravity-fed,” he said of water running back into a lower reservoir. “The clay pebbles block the light so you don’t have algae growing in the water.”Lusk, who taught science in McDowell County for seven years, said while he was there a group, the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, visited to work with students on growing vegetables indoors.Although that project never got off the ground, Lusk was introduced to hydroponic growing and the idea surfaced again when he was thinking about a produce store and providing something “unique.”“There is no store around here that has a hydroponic system inside their store,” he said.Lusk said an outdoor system is located in Kimball in McDowell County beside the Five Loaves and Two Fished food pantry, but no other in-store system is in this area.“We have a lot of space in the store,” he said of his plans to expand the system, and the store will also include a “garden tub” with fish in it to provide an organic process of using the waste from the fish to help fertilize the water in the hydroponic system.It is a nutrient flow technique used in these systems.A “Dutch bucket” system is also in the store, he said, and that is used to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.Lusk said most people don’t realize that produce which is shipped in and sits on a shelf loses some of its nutrients, so the fresher the healthier.In fact, customers can actually come in and pick their own loose-leaf lettuce, just like they would from the garden.Kale, spinach, arugula and others are being grown.
No pesticides are every used, he said.“We are kind of experimenting,” he said, about what to grow, and that will also depend on customer demand. “We also sell things from the Amish like jams and chow-chow.”Seeds are also germinated in the store.Lusk said the hydroponic system he has set up in front of the store holds 119 plants, and he can pull each plant out and show a customer the plant’s roots, then put it back.“Your are not going to go out in your garden and pull it up and put it back without tearing up your plants,” he said.Lusk said his store is a registered farmer’s market so when the growing season starts in this area produce will be sold from local farmers who cannot sell their products to area grocery stores.“They can come here and sell it,” he said. “We also work with the Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition...”Lusk, who has a degree in environmental science as well as a master’s degree in education, said he also works with Bluefield College and students come into the store and then do a marketing initiative concentrating on social media.“I love science,” he said, “and you need to eat healthy. When people see a tree, they just see a tree. When I look at a tree, I see more of its internal structure. It’s interesting to me, it’s so complex. It’s amazing.”Lusk said he also loves to eat, “but I need to eat healthy” and knows how healthy vegetables are, especially if they are fresh and still have all their nutrients.As a way to help others eat healthier, he also has a program with the state Food and Farm Coalition called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Stretch that gives recipients of SNAP vouchers that match the money they spend, and even expanding that for seniors and those with children.It’s all about freshness, he said, and as the hydroponic and other natural growing methods are increased, local customers will have access to vegetables they cannot get anywhere else.Lusk said there is another aspect of this as well.“The more produce that can be grown and sold locally, the better it is for the economy here and in West Virginia,” he said.— Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]
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