No Culture Without Agriculture

Being a lifelong resident of Southwest Virginia, I’ve always considered myself Appalachian. Seminar VI took us past my stomping grounds to what I’d consider “deep southwest” or “the coalfields.” I really appreciate Amy for helping make this trip happen because even for a SWVA girl like myself, I gained a lot from this seminar.

Several times throughout the trip, human health and it’s connection to land/animal health were brought up. At LMU’s DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center not only did we get an awesome tour, but we learned about the Center for Animal Health in Appalachia (CAHA). CAHA was formed to improve animal and public health of Appalachia and works through its mission to do so. Towards the end of the seminar Rachel Helton from The Health Wagon spoke with us at Mountain Rose Vineyard about their services. It is the nation’s first mobile health clinic and serves the healthcare needs of undeserved populations of Appalachia. Both of these organizations recognize how poverty affects human health (animals depend on humans, therefore affecting their health too) and also how nature and occupations associated with it can affect health and/or lead to poverty. Tobacco and mining are two industries that were once booming in Appalachia and are now in decline. Not only that, they are two industries that are very labor intensive and have known negative health implications. Basically, health (human and land/animal) and economic stability seem to go around and around in a circle and fuel each other. Appalachia has historically depended on one or two resources (mining, tobacco, etc.) and is currently feeling the results of dying industries – resulting in dying economies and dying people. So now what?

A few of our other stops on this journey showed us adaption and new ways to sustain the land and people. Suzanne Lawson of Mountain Rose Vineyard and the Flemings of Big Branch Cattle showed us how once mined land could be used for a vineyard or grazing cattle, respectively. Aside from agriculture, Mr. Freddie Elkins and Tyler Hughes shared history and musical culture at the H.W. Meador Coal Museum as viable ways to support the region. But from what Amy shared with us, Wise and Lee counties are still considered distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) – meaning they are within the worst economic status (10%) of all U.S. counties. Is agricultural and cultural health enough to bring back Appalachia?

Mountain Rose Vineyard used to be a mine, now it produces delicious wine and works with Appalachian Sustainable Development too produce herbs for international makeup companies

On our last day of Seminar we met to de-brief. It was very interesting to hear everyone’s perceptions of our time in deep SWVA. The question came up: How do we measure success for the health of a region? Is it mostly based on economics? The happiness of people, despite economics? Would bringing in industry to Appalachia bring more people, therefore more infrastructure and resources? Or should we invest in the people and resources to draw industry in? In my lifetime I’ve seen a bit of both with mixed results. Is there a clear solution? No way. But there are a few things that I feel can keep Appalachians afloat.

Diversification and Adaptability:

A great example of this was when we visited Will Shipley’s farm. A young farmer whose family has traditionally raised tobacco, feed crops, and dairy cattle, has transitioned some land to hemp. As you can see from advertisements and the news, hemp and its uses are all over the place. It could be the next big thing, but it could also be the next big bust. Will hasn’t put all his eggs in one basket, but has increased production after having a successful first year.

Amy’s dad and Will Shipley talk about tobacco’s past and future in Appalachia with fellow Matt Brantley

Another great example of this is Virginia Produce – our first stop. The Beamer family started off with a produce delivery, now on their third generation they value-added and deliver all over. You can learn more about this part of our seminar in Kari’s post.

It’s funny how Appalachia is often seen as being stuck in the past. Yet from my lifelong experience in SWVA, and the showcase from this seminar a lot of Appalachians are innovative particularly in agriculture. The land there is beautiful, but can be rough to live on and work with. That can make some more resilient, but it can break others. Those that are broken tend to be the face of Appalachia.

Diversification and adaptability apply to just about every field. It is interesting that agriculture started with diversification, then went towards specialization, and is now trending back to diversification. No matter what style of farming, healthy agriculture can and will lead to healthy people. During our national tour we visited Comfort Farms, where war veterans use farming to heal. This is another example of adapting and diversifying to keep up with current needs and trends.

Diversifying and adapting is not only in Appalachia, it’s everywhere in agriculture and a huge trend in all of our seminars. Whether it’s the agricultural practices themselves or those who do them, it’s really the only way to keep agriculture and therefore people alive. And when there’s people there’s culture. That’s why I believe there’s no culture without agriculture. As we travel to different parts of the state, nation, and world we’ll continue to see how the health of a culture comes back to the health of agriculture it depends on.

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