Farming Could Offer Jobs for Struggling Families in the Coalfields, But it Won't Be Easy

Sep 11, 2015

William Lusk has lived in Wyoming County in southern West Virginia his whole life. He started working in coal mines 23 years ago.

You’re probably well aware that in places like southern West Virginia, it’s really tough right now for coal miners, their families and many communities. So many miners have been laid off these past few years, and those who have a job don’t have a lot of hope that they will be able to keep what they have for much longer.

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"I don't care if they shut down all the mines down here, if they bring us something in here to do." -William Lusk, West Virginia coal miner.

On this episode, we’ll hear from people who worry about what our region will look like in 20 years, and even survival of their loved ones if coal mines and coal-fired power plants continue to shut down.

Layoffs and job losses hurt -- they hurt entire families and they can affect entire communities.

  • As jobs become scarce, families are struggling under the pressure of an uncertain future. West Virginia is left with the highest unemployment rate in the country.

Patriot Coal electrician and Boone County resident Derek Chase.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

  • The decline of coal prices is  affecting  how West Virginia governments pay the bills. Ashton Marra talks with officials in one community about their slashed budgets.

  • Without paying customers, grocery stores are closing, leaving whole counties without many options. 

How Did We Get Here?

Why is the coal industry going into a seemingly crippling bust? Well, according to researchers, there are several factors at play. When you  talk to folks in the coalfields you always hear about Obama’s Clean Power Plan and how it’s  hurting the coal industry.

The Bureau of Business and Economic research at West Virginia University has been watching the downturn of the coal industry for years.  The loss of coal jobs is more complicated than just one factor. Beth Vorhees of West Virginia Public Broadcasting spoke with John Deskins, the bureau’s director, about the factors creating the “perfect storm” that’s challenging the coal industry in central Appalachia.

  • Stricter Regulations

  • Thinner coal seams

  • Competition from natural gas

What’s being done to help?

  • Obama Administration has set aside money for coal dependent communities through the POWER+ Plan . While the West Virginia Coal Association is sharply criticizing the effort, Kentucky Public News Service’s Greg Stotelmyer reports that there are a growing number of communities in Kentucky who have spoken out in favor of the Power Plus Plan.

  • The National Emergency Grant money is meant to complement the POWER+ Plan proposed in President Obama’s 2016 budget. Since 2012, millions of dollars have been provided to Kentucky and West Virginia through  National Emergency Grants.  The money is meant to provide retraining for jobs in fields such as welding, electrical engineering, diesel technology, chemical processing, and commercial driving -- just to name a few. But coal miners like William Lusk are skeptical about whether retraining is going to get him a job. Sure, there’s the fracking boom, but that’s happening in the northern part of the state. He says he doesn’t see a lot of  opportunities deep in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. 

Some people wonder if agriculture could be one of the ways Appalachia transitions out of a coal economy.

New Industry Comes With New Challenges

Gwenn Volkert is a computer science professor at Kent State University and runs a small farm with a goat cheese operation.
Credit Julie Grant/ The Allegheny Front

  • More women in the United States are becoming farmers

Terry Shanor, a beekeeper from Butler County, sports his favorite shirt at the annual picnic of the Pennsylvania State Beekepers Association. A co-op of beekeepers in the region are trying to breed tougher honeybees that can survive cold winters and fight back against parasitic mites.
Credit Lou Blouin/ The Allegheny Front

  • Scientists believe bees are facing a perfect storm.  There aren’t enough flowers to provide bees with pollen and nectar to eat … as more land is planted with crops or covered with roads and buildings. At the same time, bees have to deal with pesticides, diseases and parasites.  But now, researchers and backyard beekeepers are teaming up to build a better honeybee.  The Allegheny Front's Lou Blouin has more.
    Carrie Pavlik and her husband Doug own Steel City Grazers, a green landscaping business that uses goats
    Credit Lou Blouin/ The Allegheny Front
  • Some people in Appalachia are finding innovative ways to use locally grown farm products -- and even some surprising ways to use farm animals. The Allegheny Front’s Lou Blouin, caught up with some green entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh
    Residents of Somerset County fill up laundry baskets of food provided by a travelling food pantry
    Credit Kara Holsopple/ The Allegheny Front
  • Communities are creating mobile farmers markets to make healthier foods more accessible. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple brings us this story of a new program in Somerset County Pennsylvania.

We want to know what you think. Do you think that farming is an industry that could help Appalachia’s economy? Is local food just a trend that will pass? Is it really enough to support an economy? What kind of businesses would you like to see come to Appalachia? Where could that business go?  Does your town have a gorgeous old empty theater just waiting for someone to come fix up? Send us a picture @InAppalachia and tell us what kind of new business you’d like to see move into your town.  

What's in a Name?

So...how did True, West Virginia get its name?

Was it when the local postmaster declared his feelings for his true love?

Did it start when the sheriff arrested himself for a crime- all because he couldn’t tell a lie. Listen to this week’s episode to find out.


  Subscribe to our Inside Appalachia podcast here or on iTunes here, or on Soundcloud here or on Stitcher here.

Music in today’s show was also provided by Ben Townsend, Little Sparrow, Jake Schepps  and Tom Breiding. Our What’s in a Name theme music is by Marteka and William with “Johnson Ridge Special” from their album Songs of a Tradition.

Want to chat? You can e-mail us at feedback@wvpublic.org. Find us on Twitter @InAppalachia or @JessicaYLilly.