Six months ago, John Newman, executive director of the nonprofit Volunteers in Medicine Hilton Head, and some volunteers planted two small Ponderosa lemon trees in front of the clinic. Now they are growing and laden with fruit that threatens to bend them in half. “I don’t know why you need a lemon that big,” he said, “but I couldn’t resist putting it out front as the kind of Christmas tree of the clinic.”

When John Newman looks at the land around Hilton Head’s Volunteers in Medicine, he sees an opportunity to enhance his patients’ diet with fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs in addition to the health and wellness that happens inside the clinic.

“People would bring their excess garden produce to us. At the front door we would have three or four bags, and we would just give it to whoever was lucky enough to be in the waiting room that day,” he said. “They would make out like a bandit, but they truly would be joyful. So how can we make that work that (it) occurs on a more frequent basis?”

Newman is the executive director and chief medical officer of Volunteers in Medicine, a free clinic founded in 1993 that serves workers who live or work on Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands. 

“The core of our business is taking care of those that need health care, and don’t have health care,” Newman said. 

The one-story building at 15 Northridge Drive has small patches of greenspace around it, and that gave Newman ideas. Between the clinic and the adjacent offices where counselors address wellness, he and several volunteers removed all of the bushes except for the palm trees. One section is now a garden for herbs, and four huge dirt-filled bins occupy most of the remaining ground. A recent harvest of the bins resulted in bags of green beans and okra, and 200 sweet potatoes.

“Everything here is edible,” he said. “We had four green bean towers going in those bins that served us for about three months, with okra planted in between the rows. It’s not producing big volumes, but it basically focuses on patients to come by, and to pick and grow stuff.”

His plantings include the grassy strip down the middle of the parking lot where he placed grapefruit, orange, tangerine, mango and avocado trees.

“An avocado, mango? You may say, ‘Johnny, you sure?’ But if you think about it, when you walk onto a blacktop in the middle of a warm day, it reflects a lot of heat,” he explained.

Volunteers also began growing smaller plants like bell peppers and jalapenos in red Solo cups, leaving them right outside the exit door. When patients left the clinic, they’d pick up a plant, go home and grow their own. Eventually, the patients began bringing back their excess and the cycle grew: more plants, more produce.

Newman began looking around for ways and space to expand the production and decided on a Zumba room that hadn’t been used for two years. With funds from a Community Foundation grant, Newman purchased eight hydroponic pods made by Fork Farms out of Wisconsin. The system is called a Flex Connect Vertical Farm Unit, and the pods look more like an eerie sci-fi growing tower, but what’s inside is anything but eerie. Forests of leafy green vegetables peep out around the edges of some, while others hold promises of future lush harvests.

The sweet green lettuce, romaine, cilantro, collards and kale bunches start as seeds dropped into trays of a material called Rockwool that holds fine volcanic ash. It takes about three days for a sprout to emerge, and then the trays are moved under grow lights. 

After about a week, they are moved into the “farm,” where they slowly grow as drip irrigation runs down behind each bank of plants. Newman said it takes about three weeks for the plants to be ready for picking. The lights in the pods are timed to turn off periodically so the plants can rest.

The “Farm-acy” – as the sign outside the wellness door notes – has been running for about six months.

To say it has gotten the attention of not only the patients, but the clinic’s dedicated donors, is an understatement.

“We started off with eight of these, and one of our donors came in and was just kind of smiling, looking around. And I was like, ‘What are you thinking’,” said Newman. 

“You know what, John, in like 1955 I wrote my honors thesis for my biology degree on the future of hydroponics,” said his guest, “and this is exactly what I was envisioning.”

Newman said the man was so happy that his work from college years ago had come to fruition. He asked Newman what he was going to do with the remaining space in the room and the answer was fill it, but it was going to take another $50,000.

“The man just reached in his pocket and said, make it happen,” said Newman, still amazed at the generosity. “We’ve doubled our production overnight. At the time of the original grant, we really didn’t know how well this was going to work.”

A recent harvest of four pods resulted in 600 heads of lettuce – about 25 pounds – portions of which are shared with other nonprofits, such as Deep Well, Sandalwood Food Pantry and Second Helpings.

“Deep Well and the others bring us canned meat, canned beans, dry goods, so we hand them back bags of leafy vegetables. They’re bringing us food every week for our patients, but they don’t have fresh produce,” he said. 

It’s the same idea for the fruit trees: as they get harvested, the fruit is made available for distribution. 

Planting fruit trees has gotten Newman some attention from Port Royal, a nearby community.

“They said they liked what we were trying to do so they have committed to planting 100 trees along their community and harvesting their fruit. It’s a two-minute drive to drop it off here,” he said. “We’re already getting some attention from people that already have fruit trees. We have space here on the island. I’m not trying to get every small business to plant fruit trees, but maybe half of them?”

The addition of fresh produce to the diets of many patients has already made a positive impact.

“Because they’re so active, little changes in their diet just make huge differences in their health. Diabetes and hypertension are looking better, plus the overall concept of colon and mammogram screenings,” said Newman. “I’m no longer comparing our quality with free charitable clinics. I’m comparing our quality with the Mayo Clinic.” 

In a future endeavor, adjacent to the clinic is an acre of land Newman bought for what he said will be the coolest parking lot on the island.

“I’m not building a parking lot. I’m going to build an orchard where I have to figure out how to park 50 cars. It just welcomes everybody when you come and park. You’ve got fresh fruit surrounding you, and you grab some and you’ve just got an instant connection to the island,” he said. “This is my chance to give back to the community and maybe get into heaven. Some of the work we do gets us to heaven and some of it keeps us out of hell.” 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.