A possible return to Letcher County’s agricultural roots was discussed in depth here last week during a discussion sponsored by Shaping Our Appalachian Region (S.O.A.R.) at the Letcher County Extension Office.
The session was moderated by Valerie Horn, coordinator of Grow Appalachia and Appal-TREE Project Director at Community Farm Alliance; Dean Craft, president of the Mountain Cattleman’s Association, and Ryan Jones, project coordinator for Alltech in Pikeville.
The talks were divided into three sessions, focusing on “strengths,” weaknesses,” and “opportunities.” But the main theme was that for Letcher County agriculture to prosper, local growers and agriculturalists will need to look to what the area has to offer and not try to re-invent the wheel.
A long tradition of small-scale farming was listed as one of the region’s strengths, as was a culture that celebrates family and food together, in individual families as well as in communities. Topics that were well received were timber and forest management, niche farming, cultivation and sale of heirloom seeds, livestock, and several other themes based on the traditional agricultural practices of the area. The fact that there is not a great deal of arable land was one area that was listed as a weakness, but Letcher County Extension Agent Shad Baker along with several others said that potential farmers, as well as those interested in livestock, should look at the strip-mined land and mountaintop removal sites that exist in the region.
Baker said that he currently farms acreage on a reclaimed strip mine. Another participant mentioned the related opportunity for mining interests, environmentalists, and farmers to work together to put previously mined land to use. Others said timber and Christmas trees can also be planted on strip-mined acreage and the right grasses can be planted to allow for grazing as well. The consensus was that you have to use what you have regardless of how it came to be. An opportunity may not always come the way you want it to come, but it does come. Baker also said that the strip-mined land has naturally acidic soil, which is good for farming, although some land may require irrigation. Others pointed out that some of the strip-mined land is really rocky and located a good distance from roads.
The subject of co-operatives was also broached and most agreed that people interested in pursuing agriculture will need to work together. The lack of access to small business loans was mentioned as a weakness, and Ron Brunty of the Letcher County Conservation District said that some regulations for state-sponsored loans make it difficult to get funding for what would be small-scale agriculture, but with several plots that are not connected. He said legislative action may be necessary to change some of the funding guidelines to allow better access to loans. Brunty also said that timber is considered an agricultural crop and a market for Appalachian timber is viable. Several others suggested adding value to timber products by creating furniture or other wood products, rather than just harvesting timber and shipping it out.
Poor water quality was mentioned as a possible drawback as was the lack of agricultural training programs in local schools. Brunty said conservation programs go over well in elementary and middle schools, but by the time students get to high school, they either lose interest or are so busy that don’t have time. Baker added that Future Farmer Programs are not present in Letcher County schools.
Several suggestions fit in well with the county’s increased focus on tourism. Gretta Fields mentioned eco-tourism and Mimi Pickering of Appalshop added that the natural beauty of the lush Appalachian forest draws visitors as well. The development of value added industry for wood products could also figure in with tourism, as the North Carolina furniture industry has done by drawing thousands of tourist/buyers to furniture markets there.
Valerie Horn pointed to the unique nature of Appalachian cuisine and long tradition of home-cooked food as a possible draw for tourists, along with a desire to eat “real food” rather than mass-produced varieties. Ryan Jones of Alltech told the gathering that Alltech is very happy to have been able to build a distillery in Pikeville and said the company would like to be able to purchase corn locally for the distilling process. He added that it would require a steady and dependable supply to supply the distillery’s needs.
Mark Kidd said the decline in population could be a plus or minus, depending on how the region presents itself. The ability for former residents to return to the homeplace could not only spur tourism, it could also figure in re-settling the area, particularly with retirees looking for a place to settle. Attorney Evan Smith also mentioned the decline of coal employment as possible motivation for people to learn new skills and take chances on different economies rather than remaining in the same economic patterns.
Land issues were seen as a possible weakness. The fact that a significant portion of the land here is co-owned, often by a number of heirs, creates issues for land use. Other problems with jointly owned land include difficulty in qualifying for mortgages and the possibility that one owner could cause other owners to be unable to use the land the way they want to. Smith said this makes it very difficult to use jointly owned land commercially and it will take some creative legal work to solve the problem.
Smith said he thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to help local landowners work out leases with local landowning companies, or help heirs consolidate their ownership and help with wills to make sure that problem doesn’t perpetuate itself. He added that the actual work it would take daily to figure out how to do that could lead to a lot of progress, and said it wouldn’t be that hard compared to other challenges.
Another use for land was to establish wind farms to create energy. Sam Adams said that agriculture and wind energy can be on the same place. He said he had recently spent time in Denmark, and an island there produces more energy every year from wind than it uses by placing turbines on farmland. Adams said the farmers are used to buying heavy machinery anyway, and they created their own cooperative to help with buying the machinery for the turbines. Now, they invest in the turbines and place them on their farms, creating an opportunity for multiple uses of the land.
Cattle and poultry farming and other livestock were also brought up as a possibility, and both fit in well with the niche market concept, as do small-scale farming, and heirloom seeds. Many people want to move away from genetically modified food products and factory-farm raised meat, and the type of agriculture that is possible in Letcher County fits in well, particularly since farmer’s markets are being developed in several communities. The Whitesburg farmer’s market is in its second year and a farmer’s market will be held regularly in Blackey at the Blackey Senior Citizens Center, beginning on June 28, from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. The possibility of a farmer’s market has also been mentioned in Jenkins City Council meetings.
Pickering said the region will need investment, and that the Abandoned Mine Lands fund has money that should come back to the coalfields, to be used for supporting infrastructure, processing and transportation. Ron Brunty said that as a conservationist, he is proactive for anybody to grow anything to supplement his or her income, and believes everybody should be ready for the green thumb. He added that people should not be limited by the size or scope of their land, and that the windowsill can even be a place to grow something. Brunty said we must use natural resources wisely, in a way that it is sustainable so that that land can produce for an extended period of time if the soil is protected, but we must educate people to do the right thing to achieve that goal.
Water quality was mentioned as a problem for the area as well. The fish kills from siltation and mine drainage over the years have reduced the area’s ability to draw fishermen to the many streams here and straight pipes create additional problems. Wildlife management was another issue, and while hunters line up to participate in the elk hunt in Perry County, the splintered pattern of land ownership in Letcher County makes it difficult to open private lands to hunting. Baker pointed out that the Kentucky General Assembly did pass legislation several years ago that would reduce liability requirements for land used for tourism purposes, such as all-terrain vehicles.
Overall, the session generated a good deal of positive energy and a number of good ideas to move forward with making agriculture a piece of the economic development pie in Letcher County. The general consensus is that challenges could be overcome and become opportunities, but it will take work, long-term commitment, and a cooperative effort. Small successes can become larger long-term successes. Horn told the group that there is no silver bullet to make Letcher County agriculture an economic tool for the county, but added but that silver buckshot might work.
“One thing won’t solve all the problems but with a lot of little things and niches, there are a lot of opportunities there,” said Horn.
The notes for entire meeting are contained in the “Grow Appalachian website located at: www.berea.edu/growappalachia/ 2014/06/23/soar-agriculturecommunity regional-foods-natual-resources listening-session-letcher-county/.