Southwest Va. looking at ag to aid former coal-miners

Associate Editor

(March 28, 2017) Coal mining in southwest Virginia has been on the decline for decades, and over the last several years, the problem has only worsened.
More than 3,000 industry jobs have disappeared in the region over the last four years.
A possible solution: A lot of coal workers also happen to be farmers, said Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.
“I think if you look historically at our region, before coal mining came ... this was an agricultural economy,” said Belcher, whose organization has worked to diversify the region’s economy. “There is a knowledge and know-how that has been passed generation to generation in agriculture. It has worked in the region. But can it be expanded?”
It’s the central question for several organizations supporting a new study underway at Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development to revive and boost agricultural opportunity in the region.
The study, due in the fall, will identify opportunities for further economic and workforce development and job creation within agriculture.
Belcher and representatives from Southwest Virginia Community College and several other regional organizations recently gathered with the study’s steering committee, including several university researchers overseeing the study. A preliminary review will be released at the community college’s agricultural summit in Richlands, Va., in September, according to a statement from the development authority. The summit will be a daylong collaboration between the local and regional agricultural community, including farmers, landowners, financial investors, economic development specialists and educators.
One idea that’s been suggested: dedicating former strip-mining sites to agriculture. Strip mining, wherein mountains or hilly surfaces are bulldozed and flattened during the coal extraction process, has been used afterward for agricultural purposes, Belcher said. Virginia Tech’s Powell River Project has been working to restore mined areas in the region since its creation in 1980. Planting valuable crop trees on former mining sites is among its goals.
“Agriculture made it through the Depression. It’s going to continue to make it,” said David Eaton, vice chairman of the board of supervisors in Russell County, one of seven counties that comprise the state’s western tip, wedged between West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Eaton, who raises goats, cattle and horses and spent nine years in the mining industry, said he was one of the drivers behind starting the initiative. Two of the state’s seven canneries are in the region, and he said he envisions a future where farmers could supply a regional brand — “Southern Appalachia” is his mind — that would ship apple butter, peas and other agricultural products to markets nationwide.
“I always thought my grandmother made the best apple butter in the world, and if we could can it and sell it, we could make a fortune,” he said.
Other organizations within the region are also promoting agriculture. Russell County’s public school system recently built greenhouses at its three high schools, a program that could expand to its middle and elementary schools, Eaton said.