The Struggle to Stay stories follow Appalachians as they try to figure out if they will stay or leave home, and how they are going to survive here if they do. Our first Appalachian in this series is Colt Brogan. He’s a 20 year old West Virginian who says he’s determined to stay. More than just living here, though, Colt says he has big goals. He hopes to someday own a farm.
Last time we learned about Colt’s struggle with drugs and his rocky relationship with his mom. But for better or worse, Colt’s Struggle to Stay story, and his goal to become a farmer, is connected to his mother.
“Despite everything she always had a green thumb. I think that’s somewhat where I got my green thumb is from my mother,” says Colt.
Colt sees farming as his ticket to stay because, more than being a farmer, he wants to feel rooted to the land where his family has lived for generations. But making that dream a reality is complicated.
At Lincoln County high school, Colt spends most of his time working inside a greenhouse.
He’s learning to farm as part of a project called Refresh Appalachia, a two and a half year training project with the Coalfield Development Corporation. Colt has to attend classes at a community college, work at least thirty hours a week learning to farm, and meet with the rest of his team at least once a month. The education, training, and even pay checks are funded through federal grants and private donations. He started this program back in 2015 and if everything goes as planned, he’ll have an associate’s degree in Applied Science and skills to be a farmer.
It’s hard work and several things to juggle, but Colt is determined to finish. He’s wanted to be a farmer since he was about 13 years old, when his family moved onto land that’s been in the family for generations.
Colt's Mom: "I Always Thought My Dreams Were Simple"
Since he was little, he says his mom, Maria Marotto, always talked about her dream of getting this family farm, the place where she spent holidays, and summers as a kid.
“I always felt that my dreams were simple," says Colt's mom, Maria Marotto. "I just wanted a farm, and a family, and a horse to ride around on. That’s all I wanted in life, And it took most of my life to get it. And I couldn’t even keep it.”
In 2010, it seemed like Maria’s dream had come true. Her boyfriend at the time bought her family farm, and Colt’s family moved onto the land.
But three years later, when she and her boyfriend broke up, he kept the property.
“Physically and mentally he abused me. And I couldn’t stand to see my kids go through it anymore, and I left him.”
The break up, and the loss of her family farm was devastating for Colt’s mom. It still is.
“I feel like I have no purpose at all. I feel hopeless. I feel all is lost,” says Maria.
According to Colt, his mom’s problems with drug and alcohol addiction got much worse when she lost the family farm.
“And I think when she got divorced, something snapped in her. She kind of gave up on life a little bit, everyday, a little bit more every day.”
Colt’s mom says addiction is something from the past.
As a single mom, she says she had to work several jobs, and they struggled with money. Her mom and her sister helped take care of Colt.
“If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t have worked a day. I’d of stayed right home with my boy. He missed me, is what it was, is what hurts me. He missed me,” says Maria.
After she lost the family farm, she and Colt, and Colt’s little brother River, moved back to their small house along the Coal River. But things were chaotic and unstable there, as far as Colt remembers. Drugs had moved into the community. It seemed like addiction affected every family.
Colt Dreams of Having a Happy Family
The instability from Colt’s childhood is still something he carries with him today, even though he doesn’t live with his mom anymore.
One night at his boss Ben Gilmer’s house, he sits quietly during dinner. When Ben and his wife go put their kids to bed, Colt sits quietly in a rocking chair, collecting his thoughts.
“I come to houses like Ben’s, and I see a family doing well. I mean they have a house, they get along, it seems, and their kids are happy. And I get tore up inside. I can’t fight back tears. And I feel out of place. Because this is not what I’m used to. I’m not used to things going smoothly. I’m used to tension and vices and drugs and alcohol and problems. And when I see the opposite of that, anytime I see the opposite of that, I don’t know I just feel...I guess I feel emotionally detached. And sad. I don’t know why I can’t stop that feeling. But that’s the way I get. I just get tore up inside.”
Colt wants to have a life like Ben has, stable, with happy children, a partner that he gets along with. That dream is almost always on his mind.
So is farming. He doesn’t have hopes of buying back his family farm; it’s too big, too expensive, he says. But if he could just get some sort of land where he could grow food he says, he’d be happy.
Even though Colt doesn't spend much time with his mom, she says, she’s extremely proud of him.
“I love hearing about his achievements.” I asked her if she thinks he’ll be able to make a living as a farmer. “I hope so. I think we need it still, absolutely need it still.”
Can Colt Earn a Living at Farming?
Colt points out that the West Virginia State flag has a farmer, standing next to a coal miner. “I feel like I’m on the other side of the flag, I guess you’d say. I feel like coal mining was good for a long time. Like the gold rush, it’s good while it lasts and then when it’s over it’s really awful for at least a spell.”
But farming takes a lot of investment, land, equipment, and right now, he’s just struggling to pay his bills. He has no idea how he will even be able to save up enough money to buy land, at least not anytime soon.
“The hardest thing is investing in this community, and wanting to be in it and just hitting all these barriers that are put up, whether it be taxes or outrageous prices of certain land. Just how unrealistic that is for a young person.”
In the short term, Colt doesn’t know what will happen to him next year, when his two and a half year contract with Coalfield Development is complete. Will he need to move to another part of the state to find work?
We'll hear more on that next week on The Struggle to Stay.