Appalachia—Down a Greener Road

Jason Rutledge's Healing Harvest Forest Foundation is one of the regional initiatives promoting responsible forestry in the Appalachians. Photo courtesy of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation

More than a decade ago, when farmers, loggers, and entrepreneurs from Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia set out to re-energize flagging local economies, they weren’t thinking about climate change. They were creating jobs and building communities. But as they rediscovered local living, they set in motion a regional economy that can last in a low-carbon world. They formed the Central Appalachian Network (CAN) to reinvest in their region’s ecology and people.

Central Appalachia is rich in ecological capital: hardwood forests, rivers, and productive farmland. For more than a century, Appalachian wealth has been overused and undervalued—with timber, coal, and tobacco shipped to distant markets, leaving behind local communities wrestling with poverty and ecological devastation.

In 1997, CAN partners opened the region’s first “kitchen incubator” in Athens, Ohio, a shared kitchen space approved by the health department and available to local farmers and chefs for new business ventures that use regional food. A second kitchen incubator launched a few years later in Tennessee, in a renovated former primary school. These two facilities hatched hundreds of businesses and generated millions of dollars in organic, local sales.

CAN’s strategies have yielded powerful results. In Virginia and Tennessee, former tobacco growers turned to organic vegetables. Soils at organic farms, according to Rodale Institute research, capture carbon (bound up in compost and organic matter) and keep it out of the atmosphere. And the vegetables now make shorter trips that use less fuel. These growers now sell thousands of cases of local organic fruits and vegetables and free-range eggs every week. The high quality “seconds” from these farms reach low-income families through a partnership with a food bank.

Restorative Forestry

The Healing Harvest Forest Foundation combines old and new. It's forestry practitioners rely on horse-drawn carts, which may seem quaint, but their logging techniques are inspired by some of the best ideas in forest science.


Several CAN groups have brought climate-friendly sustainable forest practices to 14,000 acres of timberland, letting trees grow older and managing soil to store more carbon. CAN partners have also raised $3 million of ginseng under forest shade. New flooring businesses have sprouted, using sustainable wood dried in solar and wood-waste kilns.

They created an art and farmers’ market where several hundred West Virginia artisans now sell pottery, wood, and food. West Virginia stores, eager to cash in on new business opportunities, began featuring their local wares.

CAN partners now operate loan funds that support environmentally and socially responsible businesses. To date, CAN has invested more than $14 million in local businesses whose products range from solar hot water heaters to arctic char, a freshwater fish that can be raised in reclaimed mine pits.

More than 1,000 farms and small businesses now provide 750 grocers, supermarkets, and other retail venues with sustainable food, wood, and other products. The vast majority of these products are selling regionally within a 400-mile radius, reducing shipping by 75 percent or more. The essential infrastructure for regional, sustainable economies is emerging, including produce packinghouses and regional distribution networks.

It’s not just “foodies” and “hippie farmers,” but working families, low-income seniors, farmers, and entrepreneurs who together are creating everyday products for ordinary folks.

At a farmers’ market, a patron offered this reflection on the region’s burgeoning green economy: “I used to think ‘living green’ was just about what I had to give up, but now I feel like my life is much richer because of it.”

Madeline Ostrander wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline served as a program manager and then consultant for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Environment Program prior to joining the YES! Magazine staff as associate editor.

Anthony Flaccavento, executive director of —a member organization of CAN—contributed substantially to the content and ideas in this piece.
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