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From the Earth, Up

Appalachia's dependence on coal, forestry, and tobacco has kept the region in poverty. Now, farmers and community activists are building a new economy-one that can sustain people, their unique culture, and the region's ecosystems for generations to come


What is already here?
What does nature allow us to do here?
What does nature help us to do here?

              Wendell Berry

On November 1, 1996, the day-shift crew arrived at the Louisiana Pacific Waferboard factory in Dungannon, Virginia. Greeted by a small group of security guards and a management representative, they were told to go home. The plant was closed. Permanently. No notice had been given. Ten years after opening its doors in this richly forested Scott County community, the plant laid off nearly 100 workers, also idling loggers who had been supplying the plant with logs. The profits from this plant, management said, were not high enough to keep it operating.

Photo by Ann Hawthorne
Photo by Ann Hawthorne

The Appalachian regions of Tennessee and Virginia are not in crisis. Rather, the area is suffering from long-term economic stagnation and marginalization, and steady ecological deterioration. It is an all too common story of cultural and economic subordination, of individuals and communities gradually relinquishing the skills, knowledge, and bonds that made this part of the world different from countless others.

But there is another Appalachian tale unfolding. It is the evolving story of community-based initiatives regenerating the region's economy and culture from within.

At Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), we focus our efforts on a 10-county area of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. This part of Appalachia has sustained jobless rates two to three times higher than US rates, approaching 20 percent in some counties; poverty rates exceed 30 percent in some counties.

Our plan was clear yet ambitious: to help the community build a more sustainable economy from networks of small, local endeavors. ASD set itself the task of transforming two central legs of Appalachia's economy: agriculture and timber.

In the seven years since ASD was formed, the most important lesson we learned was this: Building an alternative regional economy—one that is more just, more ecologically sound and more self reliant—requires networks of relationships that are synergistic, and a means of capturing and accumulating knowledge and assets. We have come to call this an infrastructure for community sustainability.

The foundation of this infrastructure is the ecosystem. Therefore, the strategy focuses on restoring ecological health, creating livelihoods and economic systems that are ecologically sustainable, and building the financial and physical capital needed to add value to the region's natural resources and bridge the gapbetween producers and the marketplace.

From tobacco to food
In 1995, a small group of nontraditional farmers—market gardeners, “back-to-the-landers,” some Amish families—launched a fledgling cooperative, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, and a restaurant marketing system. Over the next several years, the CSA grew to between 50 and 100 families who received produce during the growing season directly from farmers. The restaurant marketing co-op delivered locally grown produce to 15 area restaurants.

In spite of this growth, however, the size of the market was limited and we were reaching only a small percentage of tobacco and other conventional Appalachian farmers. As long as our primary markets were white tablecloth restaurants and gourmet food shops, only a small portion of the community had access to these products.

In 1999, we began marketing our produce to a small regional chain called White's Fresh Foods. During 1999 and 2000, the base of farmers began to grow, attracted by the larger market provided by White's.

Among them was John Mullins. Mullins was born into tobacco in the tiny community of Stickleyville, Virginia. Small hillside farms were the backbone of the economy there in Lee County, and tobacco was the central economic activity. Like most of his neighbors, Mullins began to see a dramatic decline in tobacco about five years ago. The amount that he and his farming partner, Martin Miles, were eligible to sell dropped by more than 75 percent over four years. By 1999, Mullins and Miles were beginning to look for alternatives.

The growing market for local organic produce provided a viable option. In close consultation with consumers and the buyers at the grocery stores, we developed a growers' network with a trademark label and brand name, Appalachian Harvest, which became the umbrella for an increasingly wide range of certified organic, locally raised crops.

The network began to take off in 2001 with more farmers joining, larger farms involved, and more outlets. Three new, larger supermarket chains joined as partners. Two of them were family-owned, based right in Virginia. From 2000 to 2001, sales nearly tripled, and projections suggest another 200 to 300 percent growth in 2002.

For the farmers, this expansion means greater opportunities to grow and market organic produce—for many, that represents a life line as tobacco allotments continue to decline. For the general public, it means access to local, sustainable food and a connection to the land. For supermarkets, it's a chance to highlight local farmers through farmer profiles, recipe cards, and informational flyers and to market fresh, local produce. The region's produce is beginning to develop a product brand identity and a sense of connection between family farmers, the land they till, and ordinary citizens.

Strengthening community through farming
When ASD began its effort to build a more diversified and healthy farm economy in the late 1990s, we attempted to mimic the best features of the tobacco infrastructure, those elements that had helped keep family farmers viable and encouraged community involvement and pride. We worked to encourage diversity at all levels—within each farm enterprise, within the network of farmers, and within the scope and types of markets we pursue. Mullins and Miles now raise 10 different types of produce and a small herd of goats, while maintaining five commercial organic greenhouses.

Mullins and Miles and 25 other farmers gained access to regional markets by guaranteeing high-quality organic produce and by carefully coordinating among participating farmers to ensure a reliable supply.

The Appalachian Harvest network meets monthly from October through March to decide what to grow, how much to grow, when to plant, and who is to plant what. New farmers are matched with crops that are easier to grow, until they gain more experience. Farmers have gradually recognized their responsibility to one another both to produce what they pledge and to maintain high quality standards. During the growing season, a short newsletter and regular farm tours and field days keep network members in close contact.

“ When you're with people with a like interest, your enthusiasm feeds each other and the learning curve accelerates,” John Mullins says.

University faculty, county extension agents, ASD staff, and farmers collaborate in research and assist farmers transitioning from tobacco to alternative crops and from conventional practices to organic practices.

Ripple effects
With this sustainable agriculture infrastructure now taking shape, we are just beginning to realize some of the potential for economies of synergy and greater regional self-reliance.

A large egg company looking for a means to comply with stringent water quality standards saw this opportunity. The result: a high nutrient compost produced within 75 miles of all our farms, priced at half of what “imported” organic fertilizers cost.

Locally owned farm stores have begun to carry organic fertilizers and disease- and pest-control products in response to growing demand from farmers. This makes organic farm inputs widely available and helps institutionalize sustainable practices.

In 2001 we transformed a portion of an old tobacco barn into a small packing and grading facility, thanks to a donation by Martin Miles. This system will increase the payments to farmers by adding value to the produce. This year, we have added a much larger building beside the barn, creating a total area of about 5,000 square feet. With this new facility, we can process 3,000 to 4,000 boxes of organic produce each week, our projected market demand.

The sorting and grading process creates “seconds” and culls—for example, tomatoes that are too ripe or peppers that are too small. The Clinch Community Kitchen, a commercial kitchen incubator, will be working with ASD to develop salsa, bruschetta sauce, and other tomato-based products using these seconds. If successful, we will create high-value products from what otherwise would be low-value produce, while diversifying our offerings, extending the season for Appalachian Harvest products, and providing new opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

Most recently, we are seeing farmers take on new leadership roles. Several have become advocates for family farms and sustainable agriculture at county, state, and federal levels—no small feat in a region historically wedded to tobacco and often antagonistic to alternatives.

From forests to floors
ASD's sustainable forestry and wood products program follows a path similar to our agriculture efforts. ASD forester Emily Duncan works with interested landowners to assess the health of their forests and inventory the timber. Together, they create a plan to protect streams and waterways, conserve wildlife habitat, and regenerate biodiversity. If appropriate, Emily then marks some timber for harvesting. The cut includes a high proportion of lower-quality trees in order to help regenerate both species diversity and better quality timber for future generations. Trees harvested under our standards are purchased by ASD, sawed into boards, dried in our dry kiln, and then manufactured into flooring, cabinets, and other products by local companies.

This restorative forestry requires at least three things: patient landowners willing to forego some money in the short term in favor of long-term wealth, both economic and ecological; skilled loggers, whether mechanical or animal-powered in their operations; and markets that pay closer to the true cost for wood products.

The beauty of the process is its affordability. Because of the proximity of trees to their market, and because of the value adding-steps in the process, it is possible to pay a substantial premium to loggers and landowners, while charging only slightly more to the end user. Sawing the logs, drying the boards, and manufacturing cabinets or flooring makes every foot of log far more valuable.

The Louisiana Pacific waferboard factory that laid off nearly 100 people in 1996 relied on extensive clear- cutting for its cheap supply of timber, and it established no roots in the community. ASD and its many partners are working towards a different type of economic development—one that is inextricably local, that builds upon and adds value to the ecological wealth of our communities. Like a good farmer, the more we pursue this path, the more we see what is already here and what nature enables us to do now and into the future.

To contact Anthony Flaccavento and ASD, call 276/623-1121 or visit www.appsusdev.org.

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