West Virginia could produce profitable niche crops grown on reclaimed mine sites.
At least that’s what Nathan Hall, president of Reclaim Appalachia envisions.
Hall spoke about uses for reclaimed sites at the West Virginia Good Jobs Conference last Tuesday at Tamarack. The goal of the conference is to bring together entrepreneurs, funders, local community leaders and government agencies to trade ideas, provide mentorship and support entrepreneurs in southern West Virginia.
Reclaim’s first operational site is next to the Buck Harless Wood Products Industrial Park in Holden, a property owned by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority.
Reclaim and Refresh Appalachia have partnered to develop an active commercial agroforestry site, which is on about 50 acres of land that was mined and reclaimed in the late 1990s, managing crops including blackberries, hazelnuts, lavender and pawpaws. The site also has animals including chickens, hogs, goats and honeybees, which are managed with “rotational grazing techniques.”
Hall said he first started work on the Mingo County site early last year. The business has five full time crew members and one crew chief. Of those six employees, four are former coal miners.
According to Reclaim’s website, the organization intends to replicate the model on more mined properties and on a larger scale.
“With any post surface mine landscape, this model works well,” Hall said. “It’s especially suited to areas where it’s not feasible to turn into a big shopping center or a golf course.”
Hall said the model is designed to be long term and said sites like these may not see profit until a few years down the road.
“This approach is never profitable in year one or even year two,” he said. “It’s more of a three-five year horizon to get into the black. A lot of agricultural investments like this are longer term.
“With animals, you have to establish a breeding stock. It takes some time before you’re able to send animals to slaughter,” Hall said. “And with perennial plants, it takes a year of establishment to get fruit, sometimes three to four years. We are looking at this as a longer-term investment but this is a pretty common way to invest in projects you see on the West Coast and the Northeast. A lot of investors know this is not a quick turnaround.”
However, down the road, Hall said he envisions West Virginia as being primary producers of niche produce on the East Coast.
“If we produce enough at a low cost and upgrade to high value products, move it six to nine hours away, there is a huge amount of ways to use these lands in ways that we’ve barely started to scratch the surface,” he said.
Crops, animals for rocky soil
Hall mentioned the possibility of products including lavender or grapes — plants that can thrive in the rocky soil.
“You could even have things like goat meat, which is something you don’t think about as something to eat in this area,” Hall said. “There are huge markets for it, maybe not here but the conditions are great for these sites.”
Hall spoke about some of the struggles with using these sites including the rocky terrain itself.
“You think about nice farmland where there is this loose, fluffy, brown soil you can almost scoop your hand into,” he said. “This soil, you can’t get a shovel to go more than 2 inches. The only thing that can survive is something with a shallow breeding system.”
Controlling invasive species
Another issue is invasive species of plants that were planted for reclamation. However, Hall said animals including goats and hogs can eat the shrubby plants while also adding nutrients to the soil.
“I’m a fan of high-intensity rotational grazing,” he said. “You have people out there tending fences and maintaining the animals and the site regularly. It has a more diversified income. And there is a benefit to the land through manure and reducing unwanted vegetation. You can eventually replant to better quality pastures if you do rotational.”
He said stacking systems including orchards and animals have been efficient in maintaining the land along with adding a larger labor force.
“You have the animals in between the orchard growth keeping the areas maintained,” he said. “It’s benefiting the roots and the trees. You’re also able to sell the meat and eggs while harvesting fruit and berries.”
Not the first attempt
Hall isn’t the first or the only person to grow crops on reclaimed mine sites. Hall mentioned one in particular back in the 1990s in Kentucky where there was a hog farm on a former mine site.
“There are a lot of activity in these spaces,” he said. “We are more focused on stacking systems and having this multifaceted approach. Other folks want one piece. It’s an interesting time to be involved. We can learn from each other and grow a new sector of the economy.”