A Very Green House

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

The Scott Depot home of Gene and Janis Bennett doesn’t really look like a farm, not at first glance.

Approaching from the street, the suburban property just looks like it is inhabited by a couple of avid gardeners. The front lawn is lined with rows of staked blackberry plants – 230 in all. There are some apple trees. Janis’s flower beds are green and well-kept.

But then you notice the domed beds filled with collard greens, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi (a cabbage-like relative of brussels sprouts) and more. There are wine grapes, too, and Gene is growing five varieties of hops for home brew beer makers, as part of a grant program with West Virginia State University’s extension service.

Nearly every square foot of the Bennetts’ property is dedicated to some agricultural pursuit.

Gene, a contractor by trade, has built 10 raised beds on the property and has plans to build six more.

He has even taken over the top floor of their house, building a small hydroponic garden to grow kale, red giant mustard, yakumo (similar to snow peas), Swiss chard and red vein sorrel. There’s an even larger hydroponic operation in the top floor of the Bennett’s barn.

The Bennetts also have a high-tunnel greenhouse a few hundred feet away from the house, on property owned by their daughter. Gene plans to grow tomatoes, peppers and other warm-weather plants there.

The vegetables are not certified as organic – that takes a lot of time, money and paperwork – but Gene does not use any pesticides or other chemicals on the crops.

Instead, he relies on old-school methods of pest control.

His crops are interspersed with companion plants to help drive bugs away. Marigolds keep away aphids and roundworms, while horseradish is supposed to protect against potato bugs.

He also plans to put down a reflective ground covering around his tomatoes this year, which will use sunlight to drive away pests that cling to the lower leaves of the plants.

They sell their produce at the Wild Ramp farmer’s market in Huntington and through a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program. They’ve dubbed their business “LeJa Produce, (pronounced “lee-JAY) a combination of their first names Lloyd Eugene and Janis Ann.

Each Friday, they fill plastic tubs with vegetables from their garden, fresh-baked bread from their kitchen and canned goods from their pantry. Gene and Janis deliver these tubs to the families in their CSA, who pay $40 a month for a membership.

“Some of them, you have to pay for the whole season. We do it by the month, Janis said.

CSAs are a way for consumers to invest in farmers. They pay a little money up front and get a portion of crop.

Like any investment, it carries a little risk. If the crops don’t come in, there might not be much in the CSA basket this week.

Gene and Janis try to avoid that, however. If they find themselves low on produce, they just reach into their fully-stocked pantry and grab a jar of green tomato relish, green beans, apple butter, tomato salsa, apples or pear jam.

Sometimes canned goods show up even when the harvest is going well.

“We try to do at least once a month, give them something out of the ordinary, Janis said.

Last week’s basket included two types of lettuce, some eggs from another local farmer, bread, kale and mint.

The Bennetts are keeping their CSA small right now, with just 10 families receiving weekly baskets. There’s a short waiting list to join, however, and Gene said the program could eventually expand.

For more information about LeJa Produce, call 304-561-5713, send an email to leja produce@gmail.com or search “LeJa Produce on Facebook.