At first glance it wouldn’t appear to be much more than an uneven 250-acre, windswept mountaintop expanse with not much vegetation of any kind.
In fact, likely not even a novice grower would expend much energy attempting to establish a small vegetable garden there, much less a working farm.
As is, even a beginner would quickly recognize it as little more than 250 acres of post-mine land made up of far more of inert and unusable shot rock and shale than it is rich, suitable farming soil.
But if an initiative known as Refresh Appalachia is ultimately successful, even the most veteran farmer will soon see this and other mostly barren post-mine expanses in the region replete with chickens and hogs mixed among vibrant, green fields rivaling any producing farm of its kind in West Virginia.
This particular future working farm, which is a collaborative effort on the parts of Coalfield Development Corporation, the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, the Wayne County Economic Development Authority, and the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, is located at the Wood Products Industrial Park. It sits on adjacent acreage to the Wright Concrete Plant and near that of the Unilin Flooring complex.
Officials say Refresh Appalachia is a regional initiative in Wayne, Lincoln, and Mingo counties which was specifically launched as a way to assist the area diversify its economy, as well as train and put people back to work.
Refresh Appalachia President Ben Gilmer says it was also a way to help meet the demand of an ever-increasing shortage of healthy farm vegetables, as well as a way to get those products aggregated and distributed efficiently to awaiting buyers.
Gilmer said the initiative is a “social enterprise” that potentially can be a win-win situation for all those connected to it.
“Basically we’re trying to change the food system in Central Appalachia by creating and making agriculture a viable economic factor here,” he said. “The food system is essentially broken. What I mean by that is there are not immediate doors available for people who might be interested in farming to realistically enter.
“The result of that is the demand for fresh farm produce is greater than the supply. The market opportunity for schools and hotels and restaurants is excellent now because there are fewer and fewer farmers supplying the demand. We think Refresh Appalachia is a way to meet the demand by taking advantage of property we have available and producing more farmers to farm it.”
Gilmer said as is the case with similar Coalfield Development projects, such as the housing model currently under construction at Newtown, the farm project provides invaluable training for displaced local workers while simultaneously providing them with a new career and income.
He said the training regimen for Refresh Appalachia also entails the “33-6-3” model, whereby workers get 33 weekly hours of on-the-job training, six hours of college course work, and three hours of life-skills training in areas like money management, budgeting, and communication skills. He said the workers eventually earn an Associate’s Applied Science Degree from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
MCRA Executive Director Leasha Johnson said the project was funded in part by a $675,000 grant from the U. S. Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Johnson believes the program fits perfectly into the MCRA’s long-term goal of creating jobs and developing new industry in Mingo County. She also believes the workforce training model will increase the success of beginning farmers by teaching them to operate small farms as sustainable businesses, as well as utilizing them as primary or secondary sources of income.
“While we found ourselves planning development initiatives in a post-coal economy, it’s the partnerships that we’ve forged with the coal companies during the past 15 years which have positioned us for these diversification opportunities,” she said this week.
“The Mingo County properties that are being developed by Refresh Appalachia are situated on former mine sites that have been developed in accordance with our Land Use Master Plan.
“Our properties at the Wood Products Industrial Park and along the King Coal Highway are serving as small incubators, if you will, where crew members receive on-the-job training and where workshops will be offered to the public so that area residents can take advantage of the learning process as well.”
James Russell is the crew chief at the Mingo County farm site. Russell said 150 Golden Comet chickens were just added at the farm site, which along with the future addition of pigs, eventually will help transform unusable soil into fertile growing land by a technique called “intensive rotational grazing.”
“What we do is cordon off a plot of ground and let the pigs till it up and fertilize it with their waste,” he said. “Then we move the pigs out and the chickens in to fertilize with their waste, which puts nitrogen in the ground.
“Once that’s completed we then plant a cover crop with a large root system, which continues to build up a rich soil. We do that one plot at a time until we have the kind of soil needed for a high-producing farm. Of course, the animals also represent a lucrative poultry and pork market for us.”
Russell, who was raised on a farm at Sidney, Kentucky, said one area on the property is already being utilized for blackberry and raspberry production. He said immediate plans also include high tunnel vegetable production; container gardening; and the installation of two honey bee hives.
He said plans also include an electricity-producing windmill.
“There is going to be the need for electrical service but we really don’t want to depend on the power company for that,” he said. “Because of the constant wind we have here on top of the mountain, we’re planning to construct a windmill to provide the electricity we need.
“What we’re aiming for is to have a completely self-sustaining, working, and producing farm, and the windmill is just an example of how we’re trying to meet that goal.”