In the post-coal economy, community organizations are creating jobs and restoring the ravaged land.
Author: Catherine V. Moore | Published: January 12, 2018
On a surface-mine-turned-farm in Mingo County, West Virginia, former coal miner Wilburn Jude plunks down three objects on the bed of his work truck: a piece of coal, a sponge, and a peach. He’s been tasked with bringing in items that represent his life’s past, present, and future. “This is my heritage right here,” he says, picking up the coal. Since the time of his Irish immigrant great-grandfathers, all the males in his family have been miners.
“Right now I’m a sponge,” he says, pointing to the next object, “learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me.”
Then he holds up the peach. “And then my future. I’m going to be a piece of fruit. I’m going to be able to put out good things to help other people.”
Jude works for Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise that partners with Reclaim Appalachia to convert post-mine lands into productive and profitable agriculture and forestry enterprises that could be scaled up to put significant numbers of people in layoff-riddled Appalachia back to work. When Refresh Appalachia launched in 2015, West Virginia had the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation.
When he’s not doing paid farm work on this reclaimed mine site, Jude is attending community college and receiving life skills training from Refresh. “I’m living the dream. The ground’s a little bit harder than what I anticipated,” he says of the rocky soil beneath his feet, “but we’ll figure it out.”
On this wide, flat expanse of former mountaintop, the August sun is scorching even through the clouds. In the distance, heavy equipment grinds away on a still-active surface mine site—the type of site where some of the Refresh crew members used to work, blowing up what they’re now trying to put back together.
Crew leaders drive out to an undulating ridge where we can see a 5-acre spread of autumn olive—a tough invasive shrub once heavily seeded on former mine sites as part of coal companies’ reclamation plans. It’s summer 2016, and the crew for this particular Reclaim Appalachia site is awaiting the arrival next week of a forestry mulcher that will remove and chew up the shrubs into wood chips. By the next spring, the clearing will have been replanted by this Refresh crew with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings. During my visit, everyone’s clearly excited for the mulcher to arrive.
“It’s almost like a continuous miner head,” explains Nathan Hall, “but instead of mining coal, it’s mulching autumn olives.” Hall is from Eastern Kentucky and worked for a short time as a miner before attending the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; now he heads up Reclaim Appalachia, which focuses on repurposing mine land.
A few small agriculture projects are on other former surface mines in the area, but Refresh and Reclaim are the only outfits attempting anything of this scale while also operating a job-training project. One crew member, former miner Chris Farley, says he’s stoked to be a part of “the first bunch” to attempt to farm these rugged lands.
“It’s a long-term science project,” says Ben Gilmer, Refresh’s president.