New Turns for Old Lands:
How Appalachia Mine Land Becomes A Culinary Mecca
by Candace Nelson
It’s a new day for Appalachia. Fields of lavender blow in the breeze. Mushrooms pop up from the soil. Orchards of fruit trees and bushes line mountain tops, and it’s all on reclaimed mine land.
But what does that mean exactly?
In the not-so-distant past, the land now giving life to these beautiful gifts of nature was mined for coal, which often laid waste to all lifeforms in the general vicinity.
Coal mining employed the Appalachian people for generations, but the well-documented common environmental effects included erosion, sinkholes, biodiversity loss; contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water; carbon emissions, etc.
After a coal mine operates for several years and nears the end of its term, operators are supposed to help return it to its original – or better – state through reclamation.
The reclamation process minimizes any adverse environmental effects from the mining process to better utilize the land for future endeavors. In Appalachia, reclamation can look like wildlife habitat, commercial development, or, most notably for fellow food lovers, agricultural use.
This transformation can provide a clean slate, so to speak, for a mise en place of flavor.
For example, reclaimed surface mine soil near Welch, West Virginia, was able to produce tomatoes, strawberries, and raspberries with the addition of some soil treatments.
“Based on this study, minesoils with amendments show good potential for horticultural crop production,” according to “Use of Reclaimed Land for Horticultural Crop Production” by Donna Ballard, Bradford Bearce, and Jeff Skousen at West Virginia University.
Fruits and vegetables are just one growing opportunity.
Hernshaw Farms, located in Hernshaw, West Virginia, specializes in mushrooms: Pink, Gold, Snow, Italian, Black or Blue Oysters, Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, Chestnut, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, and more.
George Patterson, owner & founder, takes mine land and turns it into farmland.
“We will nurture and transform mine land into beautiful farmland using spent mushroom blocks,” their website reads. “Every time you purchase our mushrooms, you help us turn mineland2farmland. After our mushroom blocks go through their flushes, we use them to make compost. Then we use that compost to turn old mine land into farmland.”
Patterson started his mushroom farm on a former mine site and used the waste product as soil to help create a suitable growing environment for the toadstools.
It’s not just fruits and fungi finding new homes among reclaimed mine land.
Since 2019, the Appalachian Botanical Company in Ashford, West Virginia, has grown lavender and raised bees to create body care, aromatherapy, culinary, and home goods.
Lavender can thrive in conditions typically present in reclaimed mine sites – like rocky soil – and is resistant to drought and pests.
“Through our commitment to sustainable agriculture on reclaimed coal mine land, we bring economic opportunity and growth to Boone County … When we watch our honeybees forage in our lavender fields, we know that we are helping to protect a species whose numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years,” the company website details.
“Our success turning lavender into value-added products also provides financial benefit to coal mine operators. Coal mine operators are legally required to restore the land they have mined. For each site mined, operators put up hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in reclamation bonds, money they do not recover until the land is deemed to be restored and productive. In West Virginia, the most common reclamation method is reforestation, an expensive and time-consuming process. Growing lavender has the potential to accelerate reclamation bond release rapidly. Growing lavender also means revenue in the form of annual rent and royalties for coal mine land owners. It’s a win-win-win situation.”
These are just a few examples of how innovative Appalachians have put a new spin on an old land to benefit the earth but also use it as an opportunity to nourish the palates and bellies of those community members around them.
From fruits and florals to vegetables and mushrooms, the possibilities for a new life, new crops, and new opportunities are growing by the day.
While much of the region continues to experience the effects of generations of coal mining, the reclamation of these areas provides a glimpse into Appalachia’s future.
The hope is that Appalachia’s future is full of lavender, mushrooms, and berries, but also continued innovation, a positive outlook, and thriving communities that continue to make the region a better place.