Stepping into the Natural Systems building in Whitesburg feels like entering a futuristic scientific laboratory. It’s filled with bright lights, vines growing up ropes on a pulley system, and sounds of dripping water from tubes everywhere linking pots of plants together
The new business in Whitesburg, painted bright pink and situated near the community college, is not a laboratory. It’s a farm supply store, selling everything one would need to garden organically or develop a hydroponics indoor growing system.
The store’s owner, Tom Myers, is a mechanical engineer and former military man who has lived all over the United States. He has settled in Whitesburg to try to make a living selling products that promote organic farming practices and teaching others to grow their own food in ways that don’t harm the earth or poison their bodies with chemicals.
“It’s the whole package. That’s what I’m looking at. Let’s eat healthier. Let’s make a living growing cash crops and let us get away from unhealthy processed and fast foods. We can help each other,” he said.
His shop sells pots for container gardening, organic fertilizers, organic pest control, and lighting for indoor growth.
Further, he intends to build a pavilion outside to take local farmer’s produce in a type of a cooperative market, at which the farmers can stay and sell, or perhaps sell on consignment, but it must be local and organic.
Myers pointed out that the Appalachian area is one of the sickest and most obese areas in the country according to the USDA studies.
“I’d like to be part of a front that counters this, gives an option to coal, and provides a healthier lifestyle,” he said.
With the hydroponics system, farmers can grow fresh food all year round. Pointing to some tomato plants growing up ropes in his shop, he said “We started these tomatoes in November, and by late January I was picking fresh, red tomatoes. From January to May this year, we expect to pick 200 pounds of tomatoes.”
Not only does growing organically, whether in soil or hydroponically, it means healthier eating, he says, it could mean big profits that want to start cash crops or just saving money from not being sick by eating healthier.
He cited a farmer he read about recently who is profiting over $120.000.00 per year but he is selling items like ghost peppers and horseradish, not wheat and corn. These specialty items can mean serious money for farmers.
He pointed to some peppers he planted in January that will be ready to eat, or sell, by the end of March, so a farmer could take advantage of selling peppers outside the usual prime market time for fresh peppers.
“If you don’t have the land, use an unused space inside or on a porch. You can grow corn and beans in your basement all winter,” Myers said.
He said a one-pot set-up costs about $60-$70 and one can have a lifetime supply of tomatoes year-round instead of paying over $3.00 per pound for tomatoes at the grocery store.
He is also growing fodder for animals in his shop such as rye, barley, and clover. The seeds are growing in long trays right in the air, using no soil. It takes 15 minutes to set up a tray, he says. He stacks seven trays atop one another, and someone with hungry livestock could simply harvest one tray each day of the week.
For livestock farmers, he also sells natural pest control methods to rid them of fleas, ticks and horseflies without harming the environment.
For plant farmers, he says indoor growing is faster and more efficient. He grew nine lettuce plants from one pot, with about a month growing time and they don’t even have to be washed before eating since he is growing without soil.
He has several plants growing in a bucket system with water being pumped through various buckets filled with clay and pepper plants. He said this method uses only 10% of the water used to water outdoor plants.
He has planted peppers alongside a banana tree in a large pot which can be moved outside while it’s warm and then brought inside while it’s cold. It will produce bananas, but also herbs growing in the pot, supplying fresh herbs year-round.
He keeps organic seed in stock as well with no fertilizer or pesticides in the seed since those substances have been proven to be harmful to bees and kill insects that naturally occur in the soil. The insects are necessary for healthy soil and healthy food to be produced, Myers said.
He believes farming could replace some of the income recently lost in eastern Kentucky due to the near-total shut down of coal mining operations.
“A lot of these out-of-work coal miners already have backyard gardens,” Myers said. “What I would like to see is ….showing people how to make a living off growing food. You’ve got a lot of hard workers around here, if they’d start doing greenhouse or container gardens they could make a living.”
He says he has many products and practices that he could teach to maximize profits from farms.
With PVC pipe and some wood, he built a 5’ x 10’ structure that produced 70 corn stalks on one side, and 125 bean plants on the other side.
“If you want to increase output in an outdoor garden, a gardener could install 30 of these systems, and amount to about 2,000 corn plants in an acre,” said Sarah Caudill, a volunteer worker at Myers’ store.
She also discussed methods for cloning tomato plants from cuttings from the plants to create an exact genetic match for a plant that has produced well.
Another problem common to Appalachia is that the soil in strip-mined areas has been completely depleted of minerals. He sells additives for soil to replenish it. Or, he says, he could help someone create a greenhouse or raised beds on their property if their soil is in poor condition.
Myers hopes to offer classes at his shop or out in the community to teach his high tech but simple practices.
His shop sells other products carefully chosen for their earth-friendly and healthy qualities such as premium birdseed and shade-grown organic coffee as well as activated charcoal water systems.
He says this type of water filter filters well water without using salt or it can be used with city water to filter out the chlorine and carcinogenic chemicals that can seep through your skin in a shower. However, calcium and magnesium – useful minerals in water – are not removed by this system as it is in distilled water.
Whether you’re interested in filtering your water, improving your environment, earning some money farming or just in learning some new ways of growing plants, you can stop by and see Tom Myers. He clearly loves to talk about this stuff!
To learn more, visit the Natural Systems website.
Breaking Beans: The Appalachian Food Story Project is an initiative of Community Farm Alliance to tell the story of how local food and farming in Eastern Kentucky can contribute to a bright future in the mountains.