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This Tiny College Town Is The Epicenter Of A Food Revolution Taking Place In Coal Country

As part of our series on the economy of coal country after coal, we visit Berea, Kentucky, the bucolic center of the region’s burgeoning local food economy.

On a bright August morning in Berea, Kentucky, Herb & Willow, a tranquil coffee shop and local arts market, is sunny and quiet. From behind the counter, Senora Childers, 25, chats with Jesse Fowler, 22, who sits drinking cold brew and bopping his baby nephew on his knee. The shop is delightfully crammed with for-sale pottery, tinctures, jewelry, and other handcrafted creations. Owner and ceramics artist Tricia Taylor, 24, opened the space in December to promote the work of her and her friends, a younger crowd that didn’t feel at home in Berea’s longstanding traditional folk-art scene.

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Taylor, who developed her business through a local artist-specific business accelerator, was also passionate about serving local food and drinks: From the croissants and scones by nearby Clementine’s Bake Shop to the Ale-8-One soda (aka “Kentucky swamp water”) that’s been bottled in the state since 1926, Herb & Willow is a testament to how easy it can be to eat and drink locally in Appalachia these days.

Senora Childers, a musician, photographer, and barista at Herb & Willow, grew up in Irvine, Kentucky, but moved to Berea to attend college in 2009. After graduating, she served with AmeriCorps VISTA in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia where she helped develop a project to assist new farmers improve lower income communities. After her time in West Virginia, she returned to Berea and believes in using her new skills to help the local economy.

“A large part of my business plan was to build community in a place where so many creatives offered goods and services but didn’t have the means to bring it all together in one location,” she says. Selling only local food and drinks means customers support two local businesses with every purchase, and, “I’m confident that what they’re getting is the highest quality from folks like myself that are working hard to create something amazing.”

As coal’s influence on the central Appalachian economy shrinks, local food and agriculture is one sector that could be poised to make a bigger impact. The University of Kentucky’s 2016 economic report stated that, while overall agricultural income in the state is down, Kentucky ranks 11th in the nation for community-supported agriculture farms (which sell shares of produce directly to customers) and its production of value-added products–crop-stretching prepared foods like sauces and baked goods–are on the rise, approaching $5.6 billion in 2013.

In West Virginia, research has found that restaurant and hotel purchases of local produce have risen by 360%, and one study found that, if West Virginia farmers grew enough produce to meet the state’s needs, it would generate 1,723 new jobs and keep $190 million inside state lines. Around central Appalachia, local food and agriculture also has a social impact: providing farmers’ markets to underserved and isolated areas; helping impoverished Appalachians afford fresh fruits and vegetables; and confronting the economic and societal issue of obesity, a problem that’s estimated to cost America as much as $210 billion annually and which affects about a third of both West Virginians and eastern Kentuckians.

Derelict buildings were torn down to make way for the 1.4 acre Berea Urban Farm, which provides food for local restaurants, like Noodle Nirvana. Richard Olson, director of the farm, would love to see other empty lots in Berea transformed into urban farms that educate the community about small-scale agriculture.

Berea, a tiny college town of just 16 square miles, is dense with agricultural and food-specific organizations, and businesses and initiatives committed to the Appalachian food economy. Out of a tiny storefront office up the block from Herb & Willow, the 31-year-old Community Farm Alliance lobbies for changes like home-based processing legislation to allow local entrepreneurs to make certain value-added products in their own kitchens. Grow Appalachia, which director David Cooke describes as “the largest community garden-based food program in the country,” has spent the last seven years offering advice, education, and equipment that’s helped 4,500 regional families grow over 3 million pounds of food.

The city’s tourism board, Berea Tourism, which runs the incubator that helped Taylor open Herb & Willow, supports local foods as part of a diversified, local-business-friendly economy (it worked with with Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), a 40-year-old community and economic advocacy group, on some of the training).The Berea College Farm Store sells an abundance of fresh meat, produce, and dairy from the student-staffed college farm, and the Berea Urban Farm sells its produce to a local restaurant, Noodle Nirvana. Business-development programs help local food entrepreneurs start businesses, like Katie Startzman’s Native Bagel Company, which she opened in April.

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The Berea College Farm Store sells produce, meat, and other goods raised at one of the oldest continuously operating student educational farms in the U.S.

What’s happening in Berea is a testament to similar activity all around Appalachia. “Almost alongside coal’s collapse in the region, we started seeing foodways and agriculture begin to grow,” says Ivy Brashear, MACED’s Appalachian transition and communications associate. In 2014, when the Appalachian Regional Commission launched its Bon Appetit Appalachia! project to map the region’s local farms, restaurants, bakeries, breweries and the like, it had 500 entries. Today the number is at 830 and growing.

Projects like the West Virginia Local Food Corridor Project, which aims to strengthen the Appalachian food supply from Athens, Ohio, to Abingdon, Virginia, are securing federal grant funding. Kentucky’s old tobacco fields are now the site of a blooming hemp industry, and the region is a huge supporter of farmers’ markets: Between 2007 and 2012, direct market sales (like farmers’ markets) here grew at almost three times the national rate. Even Grow Appalachia, whose primary function is to help people feed themselves with home plots, has seen many of its growers start selling excess produce and value-added goods at farmers’ markets: $264,000 worth of product in the past three years to date, a number that Cooke expects to grow by another $50,000 by the end of 2016.

Peter Hille, director of Kentucky’s Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, says that the story of Appalachia–of dwindling jobs, fleeing youth, consolidating schools, and boarded-up businesses–is the story of many rural communities. Replace “coal” with “cotton” and you have the deep South’s troubles, or “timber” in the Pacific Northwest. The parallels and the need for reinvention exist in rural communities across the country.

Cooke has also worked as a county extension agent in his native southern West Virginia, providing information and guidance on agricultural, nutritional, food preparation, and other skills to the local community. He’s seen a sea change in the region’s attitude toward local food–and not just because it’s a nonpartisan arena where people of differing views can become friendly while learning how to can tomatoes, though that’s part of it.

People who might have once thought that farmers’ markets were the domains of wealthy city dwellers (the paradoxical effect of major urban markets) are now buying out their local markets. Food-assistance acceptance and cost-share programs like double dollars–which match purchases made with SNAP, the USDA’s low-income food assistance, dollar-for-dollar–are helping lower-income customers buy fresh produce. There are even initiatives like Farmacy, a health program in economically distressed Letcher county, Kentucky, that actually prescribes fresh fruits and vegetables to shoppers with dietary restrictions and nutritional needs, which they then “fill” at the farmers’ market with monetary tokens.

And there’s still a huge unrealized market for Appalachian food in Appalachia, Cooke says. But, he added an important caveat: All this excitement won’t create many full-time jobs. “And I honestly don’t think that’s important,” he says.

It’s the nature of mountain agriculture, he says, especially today, when full-time growing requires either specialization in a commodity crop or a large, well-organized, diverse growing system. “But we’re going to create a whole bunch of part-time jobs and create a lot of income for a lot of families,” he says. Even people with small pieces of land can bring in appreciable income. “For a lot of them, that’s what they want anyway,” he says. Almost 400 Grow Appalachia participant families have sold in the open marketplace over the last three years to date, with another 98 joining since August 2016.

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Drew and Lindsay Elliott, the owners of Clementine’s Bakery Shop, started selling their products at the Berea farmers’ market in 2011. Clementine’s now sells to a core of 5 to 10 wholesale customers per week, restaurants and cafes like Herb & Willow.

Spending enough time in Berea, a busy, thoughtful place that makes one reach for adjectives like “utopian,” can make everything seem possible. But despite its reputation, Berea is tackling these local food experiments while facing problems recognizable around Appalachia: 30% of its population, and 33% of its children, live below the poverty line. Drew Elliott, the cofounder of Clementine’s Bake Shop and the president of the Berea Farmers’ Market, says that approximately 40% of the market’s shoppers are low-income, and about a quarter use their EBT benefits to buy fresh, local produce. For a while, Elliott himself was one of them.

“I was able to get off EBT because I started accepting EBT tokens at the market, and my income increased,” he says. “It’s a pretty good counterargument to some of the things you hear about food stamps and EBT, because it’s really been super stimulative to our market.”

Elliott and his wife, Lindsey Windland, started Clementine’s Bake Shop in 2011, when the restaurant where they worked as bakers closed. The original plan was to homestead on their farm, but they didn’t have a lot of produce output, so they decided to focus on baked goods. Now, Clementine’s sells to a core of 5 to 10 wholesale customers per week, restaurants and cafes like Herb & Willow, plus farmers’ markets and special events. He says it can be hard to get people to pay a good price for pastries. “That said, I do try to keep my bread prices really low,” he says. “Because bread is a staple, and I want everybody in the area to be able to afford the bread I make.”

He says business has improved now that he has a certified kitchen, which places fewer restrictions on what they can produce, but that he would like to see the state’s cottage industry laws relaxed. Katie Startzman, owner of Native Bagel Company, had a similar reaction. Even after participating in the Kauffman FastTrac, a hands-on business development program, she was still unprepared for the complexity of the cottage industry laws. “That was really really difficult as a beginner, dealing with this red tape and, honestly, some of these old white men who just want to say no,” she says. As her business grows, she wants to advocate around adapting those laws–a goal also on the CFA’s radar–as well as working on a city ordinance for food trucks.

Katie Startzman, the owner of Native Bagel Company, moved to Berea in the mid-’90s to attend college and stayed after graduation.

We spoke with Startzman at Herb & Willow. Right next door, the 1.4-acre Berea Urban Farm sits in the middle of what’s been christened the Old Town Urban Agriculture District, a 90-acre area with 800 residents. With the farm as a lynchpin, cofounder Richard Olson hopes the district will inspire and assist people in growing food, thus playing a role in a sustainable local economy. If the average American eats five pounds of food every day, Olson says, then about 4,000 pounds of food are consumed in his district daily.

“If we can grow even 20% of that, then that’s a lot of money that’s not leaving and is available for other things,” he says. “Then, slowly but surely, it’s not just a local food system but a local economy, too.”

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After our visit to Berea, I asked David Cooke about his realistic goal for the future of the Appalachian food economy. He says he carries “that little bit of healthy skepticism that someone in this work for a long time winds up with,” but that he has high hopes. At a time when Appalachia is seeking new and diverse means of steadying its economic footing, food and agriculture could have an increasingly meaningful role to play.

“I think this could be an enormous part of the local economies all through central Appalachia,” he says. “I don’t think we’re even close to leveling out on this thing. I think we’re just getting warmed up, honestly.”

Next Stop: Introduction: Coal Is Dying–Coal Country Doesn’t Have To: Creating The Post-Coal Economy In Appalachia

Courtney Balestier is a James Beard-nominated writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker online, the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. She writes often about Appalachia.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker and visual journalist. She’s currently in production on a feature-length documentary about the lives of several young men escaping the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.