The hopeful work of turning Appalachia’s mountaintop coal mines into farms

Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020

In Mingo County, West Virginia, the soil on a flat expanse of what had been a mountaintop is compacted, composed mainly of blasted rocks, and lacks organic matter, due to several years of coal mining. The ground is harder than anticipated; even the soil scientists say they are not sure how long it will take to bring the soil back to life. Besides, the ground does not retain water very well as it was engineered to drain water into the valley. Furthermore, there is the problem of aggressive invaders (autumn olive, multiflora rose, and tall fescue), making it difficult to penetrate the terrain.

As Ben Gilmer, president of Refresh Appalachia, which helps convert post-mine lands into agriculture and forestry enterprises, says, “it’s a long-term science project.” Refresh Appalachia provides job training and encourages farming systems that form a loop between the animals and plants, where one nourishes the other, cutting down on feed and fertilizer, providing food and land management, and helping ensure food sovereignty in an economically depressed region. Refresh farms raise poultry, goats, pigs, and honey bees, along with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs.

Appalachia is a temperate region with heavy rainfall, not a barren moonscape. Each site being restored “just needs some care and management appropriate to their characteristics,” says Carl Zipper, Virginia Tech crop and soil science professor specializing in mine-land restoration.

The workers previously responsible for blowing up are now trying to put back together that which was blown up. Many are working on associate degrees in conjunction with job training in sustainable agriculture and related fields. “I’m living the dream,” Refresh member Wilburn Jude exclaimed. Former miner Chris Farley is excited to be part of the first group to attempt to farm these lands. Everyone was eager for the arrival of a mulcher to remove and chew the invasive shrubs into the wood chip. The clearing would then be planted with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings.

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020