Editor’s Note: In January 2023, Grow Ohio Valley will enter a new era, as co-founder and Executive Director Danny Swan steps aside to make way for its next Executive Director Jason Koegler. Here are Danny’s reflections on his 14 years of work in Wheeling. Stay tuned tomorrow for Jason’s look ahead at the next 10 years.
I write in the midst of – or so it seems to me – a turning point for Wheeling and the Upper Ohio Valley.
The seeds of Grow Ohio Valley were planted 14 years ago when I was a college student at Wheeling Jesuit University, living in East Wheeling. I was working at the Laughlin Chapel and was interested to see our kids involved in gardening and community improvement. As I stumbled through this effort (naive college student), a group of exceptional East Wheelingites took me under their wing. Together, we founded an informal organization “The East Wheeling Community Gardens,” and endeavored to transform vacant lots into fertile, verdant food production plots. During that time, I found what I’d been looking for: community.
And through this work, we noticed a truth: food has a unique way of bringing people together… and it touches on every element of human life and culture. It is fundamentally economic, scientific, and cultural, and holds enough wonder to be magical (reference any child in a garden, ever).
As such, we launched “Grow Ohio Valley” in 2014 as an organization seeking to build a local food system that brings people together economically and culturally. With the start-up leadership of Ken Peralta, the unflagging servant-leadership of Kate Marshall, the effective mysticism of Susan Hogan, and the wise mentorship of founding board members Eriks Janelsins and David Elwood, we were off to the races. Our team quickly grew to include Wheeling’s most joyful businessman Brian Joseph, the steady hand of Sister Kathleen Durkin, David Miller, Russell Dunkin, John Hannig, Kacey Gantzer, Leslie Schaller, Doug Flight, Susan Board, and many others… a list too long for this article.
Since then, GrowOV has had a variety of projects to its name:
- The Public Market, creating opportunities for local farmers while making the freshest food accessible in Downtown Wheeling
- The Wheeling Food Hub, a forthcoming shared kitchen, distribution, and processing facility serving local farmers and food-makers
- A variety of urban and rural farms, which teach our next generation of farmers/gardeners while producing food for our community
- A suite of educational programs, teaching youth county-wide to grow and cook healthy foods, preserve our cultural heritage and reclaim our health
- Edible Mountain, which will soon invest several million dollars to create a world-class park for youth in the middle of downtown
- An AmeriCorps program that brings 20+ young adults to Wheeling every year
Like many young farmers, I was attracted to the circular nature of sustainable and organic agriculture. Our food becomes our compost, which in turn feeds the soil, which in turn grows more food. The waste is the solution, contained in the process. There is no waste.
This has been a theme of the past decade in our community: we are collectively learning to see “waste” as the future. Communities neglected for decades (like Downtown and East Wheeling) are seeing unprecedented investment.
East Wheeling will soon see millions of dollars being poured into Vineyard Hill as part of the community-led “Edible Mountain” project, which got its start as a project of GrowOV, but now has wings of its own. These investments include long-needed upgrades at the historic Nelson Jordan Center under the leadership of Rod Lee. Investment in our neighborhoods isn’t just happening through Edible Mountain, it’s also coming from community members like Jeramie and Rachel Alvarado, who have opened vibrant new restaurants. Art studios like Clientele and The MoJo bring fresh perspectives to artistic expression, the Men of Change are investing their time/energy in a variety of ways… and the list goes on. And meanwhile, Downtown Wheeling is receiving unprecedented investment: private investments, delightful restaurants, streetscapes, and public facility upgrades.
In the workday life of GrowOV (weeds to pick, crops to harvest), it’s hard to see the vibrancy that is infiltrating our community. But in the words of our collective godfather Bill Hogan, GrowOV has been on the vanguard, awakening our mutual ‘“belief” in our community.
At this turning point for GrowOV (and our broader community), we announce that GrowOV has hired a new Executive Director. This is a bittersweet moment for me. I “grew up” at GrowOV (and still am). My own children are growing up amidst its gardens and markets. Many of my dearest friends populate our employee rolls and are counted as mentors.
That said, I’m thrilled at Jason Koegler’s upcoming leadership (and our broader community). He brings talents to the table that I have long admired, and I look forward to learning from his vision and leadership.
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow to read a special message from Grow OV’s new Executive Director, Jason Koegler
•Hailing from Morgantown, WV, Danny Swan came to Wheeling to attend Wheeling Jesuit University and never left. Danny began his food-systems endeavors while working with youth at the Laughlin Memorial Chapel. A desire to connect the kids to meaningful work and outdoor experiences grew into a small “youth garden,” which grew into an urban farm, which evolved into the vertically-integrated food systems nonprofit he called Grow Ohio Valley. A founder of GrowOV, Danny served as its Executive Director for 5 years, is the recipient of a 2021 Beacon award, two successful ARC POWER awards, and continues to champion new initiatives within the organization. Danny hopes to see a food system that connects people to productive work, raucous fun, and strong health outcomes.