Photo essay: What’s growing in West Virginia’s urban ruins?

Farm manager Jocelyn Carlson waters freshly planted lettuce at Farm 18. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour WHEELING, W.Va. — When Danny Swan first broke ground on his West Virginia farm in June 2008, his rototiller hit a baby doll. Then some porcelain plates. Then a pair of pantyhose.

It didn’t take him long to discover that pieces of an entire urban neighborhood were buried beneath the soil — “bricks and rocks and everything else contained in houses that used to be here,” he said.

Perhaps just as surprising was Swan’s desire to build a farm in that spot in the first place. “Farm 18”, as it’s become known, is not only situated on 18th Street in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Wheeling, it also sits directly adjacent to the viaduct, or bridge, of a four-lane highway.

Local farmers warned Swan that it would all add up to spectacular failure — that if the neighborhood vandals didn’t kill the plants, the debris-strewn soil would. “And the first couple of years were a little scraggly and rough,” Swan said.

But then the opposite happened. Crop yields grew by the year, along with community participation in the farm. By the end of the season, it’s expected that $20,000 worth of produce will have been pulled from the vines of Farm 18’s one-acre plot. And since 2008, roughly two dozen copycat gardens have popped up throughout this city in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. There’s a new weekly farm stand to sell the produce, and plans are in the works for an organic inner-city teaching farm and orchard.

Eventually, people stopped rolling their eyes about the urban farm plot in East Wheeling and began talking about it as the start of a larger economic movement — one that might help reverse the fortunes of their long-suffering hometown and the health of its residents.

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