Turning Mountaintop Mines Into Farms in Appalachia

Restoring lives as well as the land.


Christmas Tree farm. (HokieTim / Shutterstock.com)

The Appalachian region has been known more for coal mining than farming.  Now in this post-coal economy, a nonprofit organization has found a way to retrain miners into farmers and restore their lives and the scarred land at the same time.

Refresh Appalachia is a workforce development program founded in 2010 to provide jobs for people in Wayne, West Virginia who are unemployed or underemployed. It is run by Coalfield Development. The first group was trained to work in constructing green housing.

The organization grew into a social enterprise throughout the region working to replace the reliance on coal mining when the jobs were drying up. They have retrained 850 workers, created 190 new jobs, and 40 new businesses.  All the industry and trades were based on local assets and viability, they range from construction, artisan trades and agriculture that repurposes abandoned property like mountaintops after all the coal has been removed.

One surface-mine turned farm in Mango County, West Virginia, is now an agricultural site and saving lives at the same time according to Yes! Magazine.

Wilburn Jude, a former miner turned farmer, told Yes Magazine that all the men in his family have been miners going back to his Irish immigrant great-grandfathers. But coal mining jobs declined from 132,000 in 1990 to 53,000 in 2018 and the Appalachian region is considered distressed. That’s why his work on the farm is so vitally important.

“Right now, I’m a sponge,” he told Yes magazine, “learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me.” When he is not working on the reclaimed site, Jude attends community college and is learning life skills from Refresh.

Before a former mine can be farmed, it has to be stripped of the invasive shrubs that were used by coal companies as part of their reclamation program. When cleared, the sites will be seeded with nut bearing trees to start a new industry. Now instead of blowing up mountain tops, former miners are restoring them.

Other farm sites administered by Refresh include fruit trees, poultry farms that produce eggs and meat, pig farms, growing lavender, and greenhouse grown vegetables.

While many smaller agricultural projects have been started in the region like bee keeping, none of them are on the same scale as those by Refresh, and another organization called Reclaim Appalachia that is also under the umbrella of Coalfield Development.

Refresh hopes that their model can spread throughout the Appalachian region and create quality jobs for these hard-working former miners as well as hope. And in this impoverished region, hope is no small thing.

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