On more occasions than I can recall, I’ve had families tell me how grateful they are for the assistance provided by Grow Appalachia, Mr. DeJoria, and all the leaders who made it possible. Perhaps none have been as appreciative as the families who started a garden for the first time in a long time because of Grow Appalachia. “There hasn’t been a garden on this land since 1977,” and “The last time the land was farmed, my daddy owned it,” were just two comments I received from these new gardeners. The way I see it, reclamation of the land is one of the most positive effects of Grow Appalachia’s presence in Harlan County, because it is physically symbolic of the younger generation of Appalachians reconnecting with their roots.
There was a time when there were 16,000 farms in Harlan County, but by the mid-1980’s, that number dwindled to 0. Reasons for abandoning farmland included the realities that steep terrain made farming difficult anyway, erosion and decreasing soil fertility had decreased yields, and population increased and land was subdivided each successive generation. With so much pressure on the land, farmers could not leave fields fallow long enough to recover fertility. Most of the gardens we work in are now in the bottomlands, but as I ask the families about the history of their land, they often point up to the forested mountainside and say that when they were young, they planted corn on that inconceivably steep patch when land was at a premium. How they ever made that land productive remains a mystery to me, but it looks like that old story of the Kentucky farmer who fell out of his corn patch and broke his leg wasn’t too far from the truth.
But in the forefront of the discussion, farming simply wasn’t easy. When I asked Logan, a Grow Appalachia participant in Leslie County, why his family stopped growing food, he simply replied that “I just got tired of it.” If there’s one thing I learned about gardening in this terrain, it’s that it is backbreaking work, and work that is not made easier by the fact that Logan lives just below an old strip mine. The mine turned his topsoil into a barren mixture of large rocks, pieces of plastic garbage, and blasted coal. The land went through various stages of grazing chickens and horses, to eventually being overgrown with weeds that provided an excellent snake habitat. What fertility was gained by being left fallow for three decades was most likely lost because of the mine, so regaining that rich soil will now be a lot of work. Fortunately, Logan’s family seems up to the task, and in the past few weeks he and Jennifer have planted five rows of Kennebec Potatoes and two rows of German Queen Tomatoes with the help of their two little girls and Grow Appalachia. As old gardens once again come to life, new gardens are planted, and the land is restored to reach its productive potential, I believe there is a renaissance happening in the mountains. It’s starting in the garden, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
|Logan’s land in early June, before it was plowed.|
|Just after plowing, beginning to plant tomatoes.|
|Marshall, a Grow Appalachia youth worker, levels the land by dragging a bed spring with a four-wheeler, a method adapted from pulling the bed with a mule.|