(This is the second part of my two-part series on West Virginia)
“To come here originally as a volunteer was like stepping into a new world…I don’t want to just grow food for myself; I want to grow for my neighbor so they can see you don’t have to settle for Walmart.”
“I’m on this planet to work with land.”
–Staff comments from the New Roots Community Farm, Fayette County, West Virginia
The place, food, and land referenced above are the New Roots Community Farm, an 82-acre non-profit agricultural center whose fields unroll like a plush carpet across the Fayette County, West Virginia hills. The voices are some of the dozen or so young people in their twenties and thirties who dig, tend, and pick an intensively cultivated six-acre section of the site to sell, share, and deliver its produce to a surrounding community of local shoppers, senior citizens, school children, and a food bank. The occasion is a more or less spontaneous evening meal in the farm’s barn, suggested by me and orchestrated by New Roots co-founder and director, Gabe Pena. The ingredients include several smoked chickens from a nearby farm, various vegetable dishes gleaned from the nearby field, wine, beer, and homemade ice cream. The topic of discussion, selected for both its physical and metaphysical layers, is “why are you here?”
Why was I here? Having spent a couple of days talking to people in and around Mingo County at West Virginia’s southwest border with Kentucky, I was hoping to find a brighter sense of what the region’s future might look like. Were there places—potential models—with similar demographics and challenges to Mingo that were reinventing themselves, unchained from coal and its legacies of poverty, ill-health, and drug addiction? Some tipsters I had encountered along the way sent me two hours east to Fayette County where I found people building a new economy and community out of the shell of the old.
Though Fayette’s population of 41,000 is almost twice the size of Mingo’s, that number, like Mingo’s is half of what it was in 1950 (some recent growth has been reported). Otherwise, Fayette County has seen three coal mines close over the past few years, its poverty rate hovers a bit over 20 percent, and dietary health problems associated with residents’ high obesity rates make the local health care industry among the area’s top three employers. And like other rural counties, a severe case of political whiplash has shifted voters radically from the reliably blue end of the spectrum to the deep red. In Fayette County, for instance, the three county commissioner seats were held by Democrats as recently as 2015. Today, they are all Republicans.
Coming to Fayette from Texas in 2007, Gabe, now 39, didn’t get into farming for any of the sentimental reasons that often drive some young people to plunge their hands into the soil. “Economic development is a passion of mine; in fact, I can get quite wonky about it,” he tells me as he takes his car into a steep dive descending into the nearby New River Gorge, somehow straightening out one hairpin turn after another. “Food access is critical to our economy and one of the social determinants of health which are integral parts of economic development. Part of our impetus for developing New Roots was knowing that local food businesses can work hand-in-hand with our tourism industry as part of an economic diversification strategy,” he says, taking his eyes off the road just a little longer than I’d like.
When we reach the gorge’s bottom, I begin to see what he means. We are crossing the New River, which along with the cliffs rising 900 feet straight up on each side constitutes the striking natural features of what became the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in 2020. It offers unparalleled whitewater rafting, hiking, and rock-climbing opportunities which along with more passive sightseeing uses, have attracted 1.7 million outdoor enthusiasts in less than 4 years (compare this to the estimated 20,000 tourists who come each year to Mingo County primarily for ATV trail riding).
Perhaps the Park’s most dramatic feature happens to be manmade—the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel span bridge in the Western Hemisphere and third highest in the United States. Gabe told me that on the 3rd weekend in October the bridge serves as a BASE jumping site (Bridge, Antennae, Span, and Earth) which sees hundreds of people hurling themselves off the bridge—parachutes attached—into the gorge below, an extreme sport I don’t see myself taking up anytime soon.
Gabe doesn’t confine his activities to just being a community food project developer and policy wonk, he’s also an active local food citizen. After working for the Fayette County planning office, he decided that local government needed younger people serving in decision-making roles, so he ran for the Fayetteville City Council and won. Taking me on a walking tour of downtown Fayetteville, Gabe makes his agenda crystal clear by pointing out the tweaks that would make the town more vital. “I want to facilitate ‘small development,’” he tells me.
Pointing to one corner restaurant, he explains how the town wouldn’t let it have an outdoor, sidewalk eating area that would bring more life to downtown. Similarly, they turned down a request for a food truck even though they’ve become ubiquitous elsewhere these days. Passing an abandoned building that had housed a micro-brew restaurant, Gabe says the town wouldn’t upgrade the sewer system which would have allowed the pub to do on-site brewing. “We have an overabundance of a protectionist mentality that impedes innovative business projects,” which is perhaps a wonky way of saying that the town doesn’t yet have a robust sense of its own potential. Gabe is working on changing that.
Though unstated, the mutually beneficial connection between local food establishments and the New Roots Farm, only two miles from downtown Fayetteville, is certainly apparent. Pies and Pints is a downtown pizza and brew joint popular with the rafter and climbing crowd. One of New Roots young farmers tells me the restaurant hosts an annual “Pies, Pints, and Pesto” festival that nearly consumes the farm’s entire basil crop. Sure, Gabe and the New Roots board of directors love the revenue stream generated by its farm to restaurant sales, but the bigger vision is what excites them. What would the economic impact on the region be if tourist demand drove restaurant business which drove demand for local produce which drove the growth in the number of new farms across the county and adjoining counties? And we’re not just talking about an outdoor recreationist-fueled, pesto-topped pizza feeding frenzy. Extend that local vision to institutional sales like schools and hospitals, connect the $800 million of federal food assistance (e.g., SNAP, school meal programs) spending in West Virginia every year to local food production, and consider large grants to food banks that could be used to buy local food to serve vulnerable families. Pretty soon you have a new economy, built on local resources big enough one day to fill the gap left by king coal which is currently on life support.
As Josh Lohnes, the West Virginia University professor I spoke to in Morgantown told me, a significant public investment is required for a self-sustaining food and farm economy to emerge. “Creating a viable small farm sector is difficult because of all the challenges required to secure land, working capital, and the necessary skills,” he told me. “To reach our potential we need a hefty, five-year support program for new farmers.” He also made it clear that food banks were not receiving enough money or donated food to meet the demand, and that they needed more support as well. And to stress the potential of connecting food assistance to the local food economy, he cited the example of the Community Food Innovation Center in Morgantown which includes a business that prepares meals for daycare centers and the Child and Adult Care Food program that receives federal meal reimbursements.
But a new economy also requires new people, especially ones that are young, entrepreneurial, and energetic. As Erik Johnson from the Huntington-based Facing Hunger Food Bank told me, there are a lack of incentives for young people to stay and come to West Virginia, especially to the core of what is known as Appalachia. “You have an oligarchy, politically and otherwise, that’s almost like a caste system that rules things here. When it comes to getting things done, it’s very much of a ‘who you know’ culture.” About the same age as Gabe, and similarly earnest about the need for social and economic change, Erik sees a “young, liberal contingent emerging [in WV] who could take on the elite,” as he likes to describe them.
One place where youth of all ages have seized control in West Virginia is its world-renowned music and dance festival scene. In addition to its natural beauty, the state excels like nowhere else when it comes to drawing pickers and stompers from across the globe. As a kind of Motown of the Mountains, numerous music and dance genres from fiddle to banjo, blue grass to traditional, clogging to square dance, storytelling to mournful ballads that ooze their own brand of Scotch-Irish soul have washed over the state for 200 years leaving unique tracks from hollows to ridgelines. The contemporary outlet for all of this comes to a head during the warm months when festivals sprout like ramps in the state’s humid forests and fields. Tents and do-it-yourself parking lots turn previously peaceful villages and grassy slopes into secular revival meetings where the worship of 24/7 revelry is the only sacrament. Bearded men and braided lasses—young, old, and in between—create a Bruegelian canvas where limber bodies prance, and instruments, sometimes “melted and warped” by the omnipresent dampness, wail day and night. Weed and whiskey are by no means discouraged, but unlike the last music festival I attended 54 years ago—the vague memory of which certifies that I was present—the West Virginia stimulants are placed in service to a more active and participatory role for all concerned.
I know all this only because my 30-something son, Peter, has attended many West Virginia festivals. The Appalachian String Band Music Festival is one such event that takes place in early August in the tiny Fayette County town of Clifftop which, apropos of its name, sits high above the New River Gorge. “Clifftop,” the place that also serves as the festival’s unofficial name, draws over 3,000 people for five days of camping, music, dance, and an all-round celebration of America’s purist folk traditions. For a grand sum of 50 bucks, you can camp as long as you want and gain access to all the goings-on which toggle back and forth between scheduled stage acts to a spontaneous eruption of fiddle music at 4 in the morning. “There’s basically a small window between 5 and 7 AM,” Peter tells me, “When the site is pretty much quiet, but otherwise there’s always music and movement.” And just to remind my Woodstock generation what we can longer do, he says, “After hanging out with friends, playing and listening to music all day, dancing until five in the morning, and feeling a bit hungover, we might hike the steep two-mile trail down to the New River to swim and bath. Then we hike back up.” At least he’s not getting there by jumping off the bridge.
Back at New Roots, I’m sipping a beer and enjoying the evening light falling across the various shades and rows of vegetable plants. The farm’s story of transition from the privately owned Whitlock Farm that ceased operation in 2005 to today’s non-profit community enterprise—the land title being held now by the national Agrarian Trust in cooperation with the Agrarian Commons—is one that demonstrates unusual public foresight. West Virginia counties have the option of establishing farmland boards and assessing a small property transaction fee to fund the purchase of farmland in fee or as a conservation easement. It was through such a fund that Fayette County bought the Whitlock property (Gabe and the Farm’s production manager, Susan Wheeler, were both working for the County at the time the deal went done) and, while other uses for the site such as a school were considered, it was determined in 2016 that the land should be preserved and used as a farm. With the formation of the non-profit New Roots Community Farm, the land was dedicated to agricultural use, community service, and education.
Perhaps, because of the generous impulse of the County and community it serves, the public benefit to which the land was directed, or the way a lovingly tended farm settles even the most rambunctious of hearts, that one New Roots farmer said, “this is the coolest place I’ve ever been!” Similar sentiments were echoed as we broke bread and gnawed chicken wings together in the farm’s barn on a warm summer night. Almost all of the young staff are from out of state; they initially came to test their mettle against category 5 whitewater rapids and formidable rock faces, and most of them are women.
But because people can’t live by adventure alone, they showed a more tender and other-directed side as well when speaking of why they were drawn to the farm as a place to work. One young man shared his story of being a para-medic during the height of Covid-19 and losing part of his hearing due to the extreme physical conditions he was forced to work under. For him, New Roots was first a place of refuge, followed by healing, and now a place that is setting a stage for a career in farming. A woman said she “thinks a lot about community and class—who gets to eat what and why; that’s what gets me fired up. Feed the people! Food is a human right!” Another young woman said, “The smallest crack in the door that exposes you to farming is one of the great joys of being alive. I want to be that crack in the door for those who haven’t experienced the wonder and joys and the bodily euphoria of having that experience.”
A modest note of defiance also reverberated around the table, as if there was a felt need to justify their choice of farming as a serious occupation. “I may not care if society doesn’t regard what we do [here] as viable within a capitalistic framework,” said one woman, adding ironically, “I’m so glad I don’t have a real job!” Another woman echoed that statement with a rhetorical question, “What’s the standard of success in this country? Make money. Work for the right company. In other words, society’s definition of rewards is not consistent with farming’s.” A young man added, “Farming is connected to my quality of life. Food self-reliance, small trading groups, and a sense of community are my standards of success.”
By the force of its mission, accompanied by its inspiring surroundings, New Roots has managed to attract an impressive vanguard of new farmers committed to building a sustainable future on the ground of a withering past. They are clear-eyed young people who are braced by strong values that uphold their own independence. Yet, at the same time, they embrace a sense of solidarity with each other that is collectively motivated by a shared goal to serve a community. Comfortable with the irony of serving themselves at the same time they serve others, they find a special kinship with New Roots, itself a hybrid non-profit, for-profit model of how you organize yourself in a world that’s not tolerant of too much deviation. They are informed by a belief that you must take care of yourself, pay attention to your passions, don’t accept the status quo when it ceases to be useful, but hold on to that moral compass which will guide you to a higher good.
Bringing younger generations to Fayette and Mingo Counties, as well as the entire state of West Virginia, is required for the state to survive and eventually thrive. The kind of innovation that I saw from young-ish leaders like Gabe Pena and Facing Hunger’s Erik Johnson and Cyndi Kirkhart, supported by engaged and visionary academics like Joshua Lohnes, are the essential play makers for change. But their efforts won’t be worth a bushel of ramps without a robust, forward-looking public sector investment. “Feed the people!” is more than a fist-raised-high slogan, it’s sound economic policy that serves multiple bottom lines: it promotes food security and healthy diets, puts land into production for the people who make up the states hundreds of mostly rural communities, attracts smart, hard working young people like those at New Roots, and diversifies an economy that has relied on extractive industries that were never more than a bad deal with the devil.
Besides the models and energy that I was witness to, there are other building blocks already in place. West Virginia’s festival scene raises up local economies as well as a cultural heritage that is second to none. Tourism captures the imagination of active outdoors people as well as those who want to quietly enjoy that state’s beauty. Interestingly, existing Federal food assistance commitments can be creatively deployed to feed, nourish, and plant a new food economy rather than simply flood the coffers of Walmart and Kroger. As one young New Roots farmer told us, “I want to connect over food.” West Virginia’s food system offers connections galore!