High on a hundred-acre plateau in Mingo County, in the heart of West Virginia’s devastated coal country, Wilburn Jude is learning to grow lavender on a field of broken stone.
In the near distance, bulldozers are sculpting an Appalachian peak—once part of the oldest mountain chain in the world—into a gargantuan symmetrical terrace you could see from outer space. Off to the right, companies are using explosives to blow the peak off a second mountain; they’re harvesting coal that will likely be shipped to China for steel production.
The ground Jude is standing on is itself utterly shattered: as far as he can see, there is nothing but crushed sandstone and jagged shards of shale. The ground is not really a plateau at all, but the sheared-off remains of another decapitated mountain. Where Jude is standing, there used to be five hundred vertical feet of rock. He’s not standing on the “shoulder” of a mountain; he’s standing on the exposed insides of a mountain.
Coal mining has been in Jude’s family for four generations. A hundred years ago, his ancestors were tangled up in the Matewan Massacre, a shootout between miners and coal-company detectives that left eleven people dead. But as the industry has become increasingly mechanized, the jobs have dried up. Where a mine may have once employed hundreds of miners, they now hire thirty or forty, mostly to work heavy machinery.
Jude, who is forty-four and powerfully built, is wearing an insulated hoodie and denim pants with orange reflective bands around the knees. He has suffered physically in ways that mirror the region’s geological damage. Two decades working the mines left him with a fractured skull and a back that has broken twice—once when a piece of cable snapped his neck, and again when a piece of interior wall the size of a pickup truck collapsed on top of him, leaving him with a steel rod in his left leg and the tips sheared off of three vertebrae.
To Jude—and, it is hoped, to hundreds of other displaced former West Virginia coal miners working distressed former mining lands—tending lavender, and raspberries, and even commercial-scale honeybees offers a glimpse of a future that is both economically viable and ecologically sustainable. Jude is one of the first of nearly four dozen West Virginians to go through a program called Refresh Appalachia, one node in a network of nonprofit enterprises devoted to rehabilitating a region that has suffered a hundred years of economic and ecological distress. Funding for the projects comes from an assortment of federal, state, and philanthropic sources—and notably from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has committed some $94 million in grants to help rebuild coal-impacted communities in 250 counties across the region. Another $3.6 million has come from federal money distributed through the West Virginia Office of Abandoned Mined Lands, which is also funding the state National Guard’s planting of 100,000 Golden Delicious apple trees in Clay County, where one variety of the apple was discovered.
Through a variety of programs in Mingo County, workers like Jude are guaranteed thirty-three hours of paid manual labor, six credit hours in a local community college, and three hours of life-skills mentoring. Once finished with an associate’s degree, crewmembers are equipped to grow food, erect solar panels, or build commercial beehives. Aspiring farmers like Jude can get permission to farm on former mining lands, which are typically owned not by the coal industry but by large landholding companies. Coalfield Development, Refresh Appalachia’s parent nonprofit organization, projects hiring more than three hundred low-income “post-coal” workers over the next few years.
The remote plateau Jude is tending is an experimental first step; it has been leased to Refresh for free by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority. On such inhospitable ground, the first step has been to haul up goats, chickens, pigs, and honeybees. The animals are already beginning to provide marketable meat, eggs, and honey, but, just as important, they are generating what this strange landscape most desperately needs: soil. Even lavender, a Mediterranean plant that can survive in soil with very little organic matter, needs some help; Jude and his team have planted a variety from Provence—along with a ball of mixed compost and manure—on a half-acre of broken ground. Lavender likes arid soil (which this certainly is), and can be processed into a large variety of products, from essential oils and cosmetics to the fragrances used in soaps and cleaning products.
Tending the land and the livestock is part of Jude’s training; in the classroom, he is studying agricultural science along with business management and business law. Refresh is paying him about $22,000 per year, income he hopes to supplement by applying his new skills and knowledge to his own farm and—someday, in partnership with his wife—a farm-to-table restaurant. He and his family have a piece of property that has “quite a bit of dirt on it,” he said; once through the program, he’d also like to raise some hogs, maybe start a Christmas tree farm. You can get young trees for a dollar each, and six years later sell them for thirty or forty dollars. Making a living without coal means being creative.
Like many young men in West Virginia, Wilburn Jude began work in the mines because there were so few other options. He started work as a carpenter when he was just fourteen, and later went to school to become a cop. But with a wife and a child on the way, he began mining on the weekends to pick up some extra cash. The money was good, and he enjoyed working the face, keeping the belt lines straight, fixing the ductwork that provided air to the underground chambers. In a good year, a gifted machine operator like Jude could make $100,000. But then he got hurt, and hurt again, and the mines closed down, and there just wasn’t a whole lot of work to choose from. Commerce in Mingo County is limited to a constellation of Family Dollar stores, auto parts shops, and a Walmart, but not a whole lot more.
“The coal industry is dying, and it has been for a long time, but we shouldn’t get rid of it until we find something new,” Jude told me. “If you want a new car, you still shouldn’t buy one until you sell your old one.”
The industry driving the West Virginia economy for a hundred years has not been especially kind to its workers or its land. Jude and his fellow miners have removed some thirteen billion tons of coal from West Virginia, yet by virtually every measure the state remains at or near the bottom of every indicator of well-being: public health, educational achievement, employment, income. West Virginia has a literacy rate that has been compared to Kabul’s. Since 1900, more than 100,000 people have been killed in coal-mining accidents nationwide; black lung disease is estimated to have killed another 200,000.
Many of the miners who survived the work continue to suffer now that the coal industry is near collapse. West Virginia and Kentucky continue to lead the nation in per capita lung cancer deaths, and the opioid epidemic has hit the region hard. Last year, at least 844 people in West Virginia died from drug overdoses, the highest overdose death rate in the country. Mining damage to landscapes has been equally grave. In Appalachia alone, waste generated by mountaintop-removal coal mining has buried two thousand miles of streams and turned 1.4 million acres of biologically diverse forests into ecological wastelands.
James Russell is Jude’s crew chief. A big, bearded man who grew up in coal country, Russell jokes that when he was in high school, the job market was so bleak that he and his friends studied “Reading, Writing, and Route 23”—the escape route from southern Appalachia to the factory jobs in Ohio. Russell spent years building electrical power systems all over the East Coast, and boasts that he could “splice hot”: holding two electric cables together, he could wait for an arc of light and then “stick them together.”
Like many other people in Appalachia, Russell and his family raised their own food. His grandfather worked the mines, but it was the couple of acres that his grandmother farmed that fed the family. Russell has been working this family plot for four decades, and has learned to use high tunnels and row covers to get the most out of it. He sells garlic and sweet potatoes, peppers and squash to local farmers’ markets and a dozen customers who pick up at his house. Add the hogs, chickens, and beef cattle, and Russell figures he’s growing three-quarters of the food his family of five eats.
A year into a presidential administration that promises to “bring back coal,” Russell is under no illusions about the economic future of his region, or the beneficence of the coal industry itself. Given the chance, most of the miners he knows would have voted for the candidate in the 2016 election with the most interest in actual working people: Bernie Sanders.
“It’s not about bringing back coal, it’s jobs we want,” Russell said. “We want to work. When it comes to politics, we don’t care if it’s coal. We want jobs.”
Building a diverse and sustainable Appalachian economy is less about creating something new than about returning to something old. West Virginia has always been populated by people trying to do small-scale, artisanal work on relatively inhospitable terrain. Appalachia has never been a place where large-scale production gets a foothold for long; its sharp peaks and narrow valleys meant landowners never established large plantations (or widespread slavery), which is one reason why West Virginia joined the Union during the Civil War. Although there were substantial hog farms in some areas, those farms disappeared in the early twentieth century when American chestnut trees, which fed the hogs and made up 25 percent of the hard- woods in the mountain forests, were wiped out by blight.
The intrusion of the coal industry hit the smallholder economy like a meteor. Big Coal needed a lot of people to pull rock out of the ground, and the influx of large numbers of workers dramatically changed the fragile balance between people and land. Suddenly, there were a lot more people than the landscape could support. Now those industries are crashing, leaving nothing for their workers to do.
Rebuilding a region—one run for decades by a political machine beholden to the coal industry—has fallen to local people like Nathan Hall, whose own family has been in Appalachia for nine generations. Hall grew up on the “West Virginia side of Kentucky”—the coal-mining side, not the horseracing side. Now thirty-four, Hall worked as an underground miner in his early twenties before graduating from Kentucky’s Berea College, a liberal arts school founded by abolitionists and devoted to educating promising low-income Appalachian students. An academic standout, Hall used a Watson Fellowship after graduation to travel the globe researching communities very much like his own—those struggling to recover from decades of extractive mining. He spent six months in India, speaking with indigenous people working in coal and bauxite mines. There, he looked at bioenergy projects, short-rotation biomass plants, village-scale solar projects, and small-scale efforts to use invasive species as fuel for cook stoves.
“A lot of this work was not depressing, but eye-opening,” Hall said. “[In Appalachia] we all feel poverty-stricken, abandoned, disenfranchised—but the mining areas of Eastern India change your definition of poverty and disenfranchisement. Hundreds of people can be removed from their land, or shootouts can kill dozens—it’s like how things were here eighty or ninety years ago.”
Hall also visited abandoned mining communities in Slovakia, Romania, Germany, Wales, and Northern Spain. “These are all places that started the Industrial Revolution, but by the 1980s it was gone,” Hall said. “Slovakia had been mining silver since the 1600s, then it died in the 1970s. They’ve tried to start a tourism industry, but really, how many post-mining tourists are there?”
Hall eventually returned home and took a job with Green Forest Works, reforesting a thousand acres of former surface-mining land with more than 650,000 native tree seedlings. Among the young trees were restoration chestnuts, a hybrid of American chestnut and blight-resistant Chinese chestnut. It turns out that the restoration chestnut “really likes mine lands,” Hall said. “They grow really well in sandy, drought-prone soils. They were a ridge species to begin with.” This was not easy work. Just to get seedlings into the ground, Hall had to use a bulldozer equipped with a “tractor pull ripper,” cleaving the land to a depth of four or five feet.
Hall then went to Yale for a dual graduate degree—environmental management from the forestry school and an MBA from the school of management. When I asked how people at Yale responded to a former Appalachian coal miner, Hall smiled.
“I was surprised how few people even knew about West Virginia,” he said. “They didn’t even know about the hillbilly stereotypes. At the school of management, they were all coming from backgrounds on Wall Street, or in multinational corporations.”
After Yale, Hall returned home again to work for Reclaim Appalachia, a sister organization to Refresh. One of the places he landed was Wilburn Jude’s strange plateau in Mingo County, which was not only devoid of usable soil but also completely overrun with plants that seemed happy to grow there: autumn olive, sericea lespedeza, and multiflora rose—aggressive and invasive species that prevent almost anything else from getting a root down. Hall’s team (and their goats) have been ripping out the invasives and replacing them—on the slopes—with native trees like black locusts, sycamores, and tulip poplars.
On the jagged flatland, Hall, Jude, and Russell will use a tractor-pulled stone-crusher to grind the rocks into soil-sized particles. Once the land is amended with compost and manure from the livestock penned in nearby, they will lay out orchards of pawpaws and hazelnuts, blackberries and raspberries. Hall expects the latter to do especially well, since their native cousins “are everywhere up here.”
Hall and his team have also already established local markets for meat and egg sales; up on the plateau, a hundred yards from the lavender fields, they are gathering forty or fifty dozen eggs a week, and are about to do their first hog slaughter. With the production of berries, nuts, lavender, and honey, they expect to be cash-positive in a year.
“I don’t want to wait twenty years for economic development to happen,” Hall said. “Political leadership just thinks about attracting federal prisons, golf courses, or shopping centers. Given the amount of land we have down here, and a non-well-educated population, it’s not realistic that we’ll attract a large Toyota plant. For a long time, it was hard to talk to them unless you were talking about a multimillion-dollar business. But now they realize that this is never going to be the next Silicon Valley or Taiwan-style manufacturing center.”
South of Mingo County, on the grounds of a former summer camp built for the children of coal miners, Mark Lilly and Parry Kietzman are busy examining an enclosure of locust posts and electric fencing built to protect several dozen beehives from one of their most visible challenges: black bears.
“A bear could come in here and break everything apart,” said Lilly, a sturdy man with a neatly trimmed silver mustache, dressed in denim and a hoodie. “It’s not like Winnie the Pooh. Bears don’t want the honey. They want the larvae, for the protein.”
Inside the camp’s former gym, hundreds of bee boxes—constructed by Nathan Hall’s Reclaim Appalachia crew—are assembled, painted, and stacked in rows along the walls. Near the confluence of the New and Greenbrier Rivers, Lilly and Kietzman work with the Appalachian Bee Collective, a branch of a nonprofit restoration and development group called Appalachian Headwaters. Their team started with six hundred nuclear colonies, or “nucs,” and expects to bring in another eight hundred this spring. Up and running for eighteen months, the Bee Collective is already paying the salaries of a dozen educators, beekeepers, and community organizers. Far more importantly, it is building a training and research center that will both provide much-needed income for hundreds of local residents and restore pollinators to a region that desperately misses them.
The goal is to develop a broad network of backyard bee colonies at the homes of people in the fourteen poorest counties in southern West Virginia. The collective has already recruited three dozen beekeepers this year, expects to enlist another eighty-five next year, and a hundred more the year after that. A big part of the project is educational: residents do not need any previous experience, and—if they are below a certain income level—they will receive all their hives and training free of charge.
No one expects beekeeping to provide anyone’s entire income, Lilly said. “After the mines closed, McDowell County had its one Walmart shut down, so even the people working there suddenly had no jobs. There are a lot of people around here who don’t have plumbing in their homes and never have.
If they are making $25,000 a year working three or four part-time jobs, and we can help them make another $5,000, that’s huge. What we are providing is the opportunity for people to earn the supplemental income for taking their kids to the dentist, or for Christmas gifts for their kids.”
Once the former camp gym’s dilapidated wood floor is replaced by poured concrete, the building will become the collective’s center of operations, complete with classrooms and labs for teaching and research by both resident and visiting scientists. The fully established center will house an “extraction hub,” and it will market the finished product throughout the country as “high-end West Virginia honey.” And it’s not just honey: taking a cue from Burt’s Bees, which originated in rural Maine, the collective also envisions providing beeswax for products like lip balms and lotions sold in markets in Charlottesville, Baltimore, and Washington DC.
“I feel a lot of responsibility here, and not just for my own research,” said Kietzman, the lead researcher and educator for the collective, who holds a PhD in honeybee entomology from the University of California, Riverside. “This is really about rebuilding this whole community. I grew up the child of missionaries in Honduras, and the human aspect of this job really appealed to me. I was raised in a family where you take your talents and resources and use them to serve other people. I couldn’t not do this job.”
But like Nathan Hall’s mountaintop chickens and pigs, Parry Kietzman’s bees are expected to do a lot more than produce income. They will also improve the soil. Honeybees have the capacity to begin a kind of reverse ecological cascade in forests that have been catastrophically damaged, first by mining and then (especially in the case of native trees like hemlocks and ash) by invasive insects. As groups like Hall’s reforest the scarred earth, and as young trees are pollinated by foraging honeybees, local soils will stabilize, aerated by root systems and nourished by microbes and leaf litter. As forests re-establish, native bees—which typically live in the ground and have long since abandoned coal country—are expected to return, furthering the restoration of the soil. In other words, the establishment of honeybee colonies and the reforestation and replanting of native shrubs in coal country is reciprocal: the bees need the native plants—tulip poplar, locusts, redbud, sourwood, basswood, rhododendron, mountain laurel—and the native plants need the bees.
When Kietzman teaches beekeeping classes and people want to know about bee colony collapse, she tries to get them to focus on habitat loss, not just on the overuse of insecticides. The lack of industrial-scale farms means there are fewer of the bee-killing neonicotinoid sprays in use around here, but the loss of native trees and plants remains a big problem, especially in areas where homeowners remove natives and madly roll out carpets of grass.
“This is a perfect system to show how this works in a heavily disturbed area,” Kietzman said. “When people think about bees dying they automatically think about honeybees, but really it’s the native bees that are in the most trouble. Digger bees can only nest in ground—you’re talking about a tiny little bee that can’t nest in hard-packed, bare ground. The rusty-patched bumblebee has already made it to the endangered species list. My hope is that by rebuilding habitat, these bees will come back, forage, and find appropriate nutrition. If you don’t have insects out there working for you, your work will be in vain. We should think of native bees as an indicator species, just like invertebrates in streams, to gauge whether we have a healthy terrestrial system.”
But restoring native bees starts with establishing colonies of honeybees. Adjacent to mining lands, the forests in this part of the Appalachians happen to be ideal for honeybees, given ample food supplies in the huge, unbroken stands of tulip poplars, black locusts, and herbaceous shrubs like spicebush. Kietzman and Deborah Delaney, an apiarist at the University of Delaware and a consulting scientist for the Bee Collective, are bringing in breeding honeybee stock from New England, and expect them to adapt more easily to West Virginia winters than bees from Georgia or California. Over time, they’d like to develop a local strain optimally suited to Appalachia, but that’s ten years away. American honeybees have always been “mutts,” Delaney said; not native to North America, the first ones came from Europe in the 1500s.
For Mark Lilly, the Bee Collective also serves to remind Appalachian people how important it is for them to reinvest in their own economy. “A large segment of the people here realizes that all the money that came out of the mines went somewhere else,” he said. “Pittsburgh exists because of our coal. But at least the coal [in this part of the state] was pretty deep, so there hasn’t been any mountaintop removal, and we don’t have to look at the scars. Can you say we’re lucky?”
A few miles down the road, next to an open-pollinated cornfield growing for a local whiskey distiller, Bee Collective hives overlook the hoop houses of Sprouting Farms, a restoration project that is growing more than food. It is growing farmers.
Sprouting Farms trains dozens of growers to construct the necessary elements of a local food economy. On eighty-two acres, they are growing food in fields and dozens of high tunnels and hoop houses, but they are also building partnerships with wholesale markets, pushing to get local food into local schools and hospitals, and designing a local model for Community Supported Agriculture.
In league with projects like Nathan Hall’s and the Bee Collective, the idea is to create a new generation of small-holding Appalachian farmers who will contribute to a larger agricultural community—one that’s appropriately scaled, diversified, and vertically integrated. Just as Nathan Hall sees Reclaim Appalachia as a training hub for people learning animal husbandry, reforestation, or carpentry, Amanda Harris, the farm’s education coordinator, sees Sprouting Farms as a training hub for vegetable farmers. By investing in expensive infrastructure like high tunnels and tractors, they’re offering entry-level farmers the chance to learn the business without taking on crippling debt.
“To grow in a high tunnel on my own property would cost $10,000,” Harris said. “I’d have to buy a tractor and tools and all that. We operate as a resource-sharing center. We’re looking at creating a buying cooperative for things like soil amendments to reduce costs. There are lots of cost barriers to farming, but if we can reduce those by working together, then hopefully more farmers will grow out of it.”
The target audience is the local community. Livelihoods from coal are gone, but Sprouting Farms sees a lot of potential in the right kind of agricultural economy. “The small farm will never be able to compete with the bleached, pressure-washed lettuce coming in from US Foods,” Harris said. “It takes educating consumers about the nutritional value of local food, because local food has nutrition still in it. We have to create a system big enough that it can hold its ground against Big Ag.”
Here’s how the program works: With the help of grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the ONE Foundation, aspiring farmers receive eight months of training (from March through October) that also guarantees them four hundred hours of labor paid at nine dollars per hour. For the first three months, students work twenty hours per week at Sprouting Farms itself. An additional twenty hours per week are spent learning everything from tractor use to niche crop production to cold storage—everything they need to know about the business of running a small farm.
At about the three-month mark, students develop their own business plans. They work with local extension agents and granting foundations to learn about farm insurance, loan programs, and land-purchase agreements. And—still getting paid for twenty hours of work a week—they get more on-the-job training by working on “mentor farms” around the area, where they learn to grow year-round, perfect the growing of specialty crops, or practice butchery.
Fritz Boettner, an environmental consultant with a background in watershed management, is the director of Sprouting Farms. He spent years surveying the local food landscape and realized that simply adding more farmers was not going to fix the area’s problems. Like other parts of the country, one of the region’s biggest challenges has been not just finding farmers or consumers, but creating the infrastructure to get locally grown food into the hands of consumers. He sees Sprouting Farms as “a hub with spokes.”
“You see what the gaps and the opportunities are,” Boettner said. “Equipment is expensive, land is expensive, labor is hard to come by, there aren’t enough markets. Once we had all our information, we started thinking about a project that would meet all those gaps. How do we get West Virginia produce all over the East Coast?
“We ask people, ‘What produce do you buy from California? Would you be willing to prioritize West Virginia growers?’ People tell us they might even be willing to pay more for our food. You have to convince your distributors to accept our produce, to pay a premium for it, and then have schools and grocery stores call it ‘Appalachian-Grown Spring Mix.’”
Boettner sees Sprouting Farms as a kind of farm incubator: how can he get local farmers to produce vegetables that are just the right size for distributors’ trucks? If a distributor has a market for 350 cases of winter squash, Boettner wants to be able to tell him that his farmers can plant five acres of winter squash and have the harvest waiting in a pallet. If they say they need ten thousand pounds of peppers a year, Fritz wants them to know that the farmers in his valley will provide them.
“If a local restaurant in DC wants all the produce we can get to him, I need to figure out how to get it to him,” Boettner said. “The food hubs in Charlottesville and Warrenton—they all need more produce. I just need to get our produce to them. I’d like to go to my farmers and tell them, ‘We need one thousand pounds of lettuce a week. Who wants to participate?’”
Boettner is looking into renting space once occupied by a defunct Family Dollar store—he wants to turn it into a cold-storage facility, where the produce his farmers grow can be aggregated, packed, and put on a loading dock. He’s asked the distribution companies if they would be willing to swing by and pick up the produce, and they have said yes.
“The big challenge is how to do this in Appalachia,” Boettner said. “This isn’t Charlottesville, where farms can be hundreds of acres. It’s not Kansas or Iowa. Our challenge is this: how do we grow a lot on a little? Change comes at the edge of comfort. That’s just the way it is.”
For the Bee Collective’s Mark Lilly, all this work—with bees, lavender, or winter squash—is really just an effort to return West Virginia to a state of economic and ecological balance. Lilly knows the local hardships intimately. His great-great-great grandfather came to the county in the mid-1700s. A town once known as Lilly is now at the bottom of a lake formed by the construction of what was supposed to be a hydroelectric dam. Graveyards had to be moved. Yet the dam was never outfitted to generate electricity. Lilly himself spent three decades working with insurance claims, “watching these little towns die.”
“Ours is the ugly story of what the mines did, and we are trying to get the population to understand what happens after that,” Lilly said. “Miners can never say the mine was a bad thing, because the mine was their job. They all want their kids and grandkids to be able to fish in the streams, but they also want a good income. If you lived in rural West Virginia and had a tenth-grade education and you could make twenty-six bucks an hour working for the mine versus eight bucks an hour working in a Walmart, what would you do? These guys lay on their backs and rode a mine car three or four miles just to get to work.
“We are offering a different way to make some money,” Lilly told me. “If you’re living in a single-wide mobile home, with tarps wrapped around the bottom so your plumbing won’t freeze, we’re saying we can help show you an extra five or six thousand bucks. Why wouldn’t you want to do it?”