It was a difficult year, 2015 was, for Grow Ohio Valley, but not because the people in the Wheeling area haven’t responded to their efforts to supply locally grown, healthful foods.
The culprit, no question, was Mother Nature.
“Last year was very challenging from a weather standpoint; that’s for sure. We had a very dry spring, and then it rained almost every day during the month of June,” Peralta explained. “So, for our sophomore year, the weather presented some graduate-level problems. But we made it through it.
“It’s didn’t kill us, so I guess it made us stronger,” he said. “That’s the way we are looking at it, and we worked very hard during the winter months to prepare for a much better year in 2016.”
The few employees of Grow Ohio Valley were joined by a plethora of volunteers during the winter months to excavate the hillside on the west side of Wheeling Hill in order to construct a pair of greenhouses that are visible from many corners of the city of Wheeling and in East Ohio. Peralta said cantaloupes, various greens, squash, and tomatoes are already growing.
“These two greenhouses represent a number of things. First and foremost, though, they will allow us to increase our production. It’s a bigger footprint and an extension of our growing season. They will allow us to start growing earlier and also later into the season,” Peralta said. “In that sense, they are really important to us because we want to work toward a four-season food-production schedule.
“Also, they represent the first phase of utilizing this wonderful resource in Wheeling. This whole hillside really is a magical area because for a long time not many people even came up here, but we see this land as having an enormous amount of potential. I can see amazing trails, mountain biking, and geocaching” he continued. “So we’re very happy that we are making something happen here. It’s not beautiful yet, but it’s on its way to becoming just that.”
One of several major challenges faced by Peralta, Danny Swann, Doug Flight, Jocelyn Carlson, and many others included the water runoff that has led to erosion issues on the land. The parcel, managed by the city of Wheeling but owned by the legendary Zane family has experienced issues involving erosion.
“When we first discovered this area, we knew there was a lot of water because of what we saw growing up here, and after we started moving earth around, we discovered two large clay pipes that were busted and water just pouring out of them,” Peralta said. “We did have to do a lot more French draining than what we planned, but now we have captured some of it in a pond and can use it for the growing process.
“I would estimate that it’s flowing right now at 10 gallons per minute,” he continued. “That will slow as the summer approaches, but that’s a lot of water. We probably have enough water to grow rice up here, and rice takes an enormous amount of water to grow. The good news is that the water is now channeled instead of flowing wildly, and that will decrease the erosion risk for this area as well as give us the water we need to use in the whole process.”
Ever since Grow Ohio Valley launched in 2014, residents of the Upper Ohio Valley have come to depend on the organization for their locally grown vegetables and fruits, a fact Peralta finds motivating to him to continue confronting challenge after challenge.
“The support we have received from this community is, in part, what keeps me going because that’s been very exciting to me,” Peralta admitted. “There will always be the naysayers out there. We all know that. Some may think that we are trying to compete with the local farmers, but we do not see it that way because we’ve been very supportive of all of our local farmers.
“We think a lot about cooperation and nothing about competition. Our goal is to increase the amount of farming that is taking place in this region of the country because there’s not a lot of it right now,” he continued. “The market is growing now for fresh and local produce, and our hope is that we can all work together to make sure that growth continues into the future.”
More partnerships may lead to even more farming throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, Peralta said.
“We’re excited to have the ability to increase our growing because we really want to grow as much as we can for the people in the Wheeling area,” Peralta said. “And we really enjoy working with this area’s farmers so we can purchase from them what we do not grow ourselves. We and our customers benefited a great deal from those partnerships a great deal last year.
“We’re hopeful that more farmers will join us in the future because we really want to grow the whole food-production market in this area,” he continued. “We are not competing with other farmers at all. We want to create more opportunities for our local farmers. That’s our goal.”
Growing the relationship already established with Wheeling’s municipal government is yet another goal, so more opportunities utilizing abandoned land are a possibility.
“We are really excited about looking ahead as we look for way to bridge stronger ties with the city of Wheeling,” Peralta said. “The city staff members are great and always have been. They been very open when it’s come to us, but we would love to see more formalized and proactive planning for opportunities.
“An example is a project that the Department of Agriculture has tested in other cities, and it involved using open lots as test plots,” he explained. “They are doing that to show what kind of value can grow and come off an acre of land, and they have approached us to do something similar here in Wheeling. If we had a formal agreement in place we could be working with the city to allow that to happen now, but we do not have that right now. We hope to have that in the future because a lot of opportunities do pass us by.”
For now, according to Grow Ohio Valley’s CEO, the goal oat hand is to continue preparing for the time when the produce begins to flow from the organization’s three farms in the East Wheeling area along with making more progress on the apple orchard on the east side of Wheeling Hill.
Plus, partnerships, partnerships, partnerships.
“We are working very hard right now to get our summer operations ready to launch,” Peralta reported. “The Community Supported Agriculture program is on sale now, and those food baskets will start to be distributed in late June, and that’s a really great value for the local folks. Our mobile market will be back in motion this year, and we are also working with Health Rite so the people there can address some of the issues they are dealing with through healthy foods.
“We also have some long-term conversation about even more partnerships connected with the Department of Agriculture, so we’re excited about that,” he said. “And we’re always looking for more space to increase our production. That’s very important to us.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)