Black Farmers Are Rebuilding Agriculture in Coal Country

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Jason Tartt noticed alternative Inside the terraced hillfacets of his native West Virginia, each for restoring the land and for completely different Black farmers.


Jan 10, 2022

Wright hereas Most people affiliate West Virginia with coal mining, the hills and valleys are additionally Fitted to agriculture. And as coal manufacturing wanes, farmers are seeing rising alternatives to increase their sector.

Jason Tartt, a farmer in West Virginia, says the Mountain State is fertile territory for honey manufacturing and maple and fruit orchards Inside the flood plains. Tartt, Who’s Black, sees his position as each creating financial alternative by way of farming and supporting completely different Black farmers in West Virginia.

Growing up in rural McDowell County (inhabitants 19,111 in 2020), Tartt remembers that it was commonplace for Black people in his group to be involved in small-scale agriculture, Whether or not or not they have been rising gardens or processing pork and poultry. These practices tapered off Through the years as Black people left looking for greater financial prospects in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. The inhabitants genperiodl in McDowell County has declined by Higher than 20% since 2010, and Black people make up simply 8.5% of the native inhabitants.

As a farmer, Tartt’s goals are twofprevious: construct a by way ofble agricultural financial system Inside the county and state, and appeal to completely different Black people to see West Virginia, and notably McDowell County, as a by way ofble place To assemble a life.

In America, Black farmers are an underrecurrented group. Based mostly on the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 35,470 farms are Black-personaled, out of Higher than 2 million complete farms. Almost all of farms Inside the U.S. are personaled by White people. In West Virginia, solely 31 of the 23,622 farms are Black-personaled or -opperiodted. The U.S. Division of Agriculture estimates that farmers who recognized as Black or Black Collectively with ancompletely different race accounted for simply 1.4% of America’ roughly 3.4 million agricultural producers in an enterprise that genperiodted $388.5 billion in 2017.

Coal continues to be West Virginia’s most seen enterprise. In 2020, West Virginia was the second largest producer of coal, after Wyoming, and accounted for 13% of complete coal manufacturing in America. However employment Inside the coal enterprise fell 17% from 2016 to 2020, and in West Virginia, the Quantity of enterprise jobs fell to 11,418 in 2020, dpersonal from a peak of Higher than 100,000 jobs Inside the Nineteen Fifties.

Employment alternatives in coal mining have been a draw For A lot of Black southerners like Tartt’s househprevious, who migrated from Alabama Inside the Nineteen Twenties and put dpersonal roots Inside the Appalachian area that now stretch again 4 durations. As coal dwindles in West Virginia, Tartt says Many people, Regardless of their race, are left with out a lot financial alternative.

“Tright here’s A lot of poverty, A lot of unemployment, those types of factors,” Tartt says. “A lot of That is as a Outcome of the coal mining enterprise is gone. Collectively with that, it’s virtually like these people and this place have been left behind.”

That is wright here farming enters The picture. Tartt enlisted Inside the army in 1991 and labored as a U.S. Division of Protection contractor earlier than returning to McDowell County in 2010. In his second profession as a farmer, He is using his new position To assist educate the native refacetnts about what bounty lies Inside the flood plains and mountainous terrain. Tartt has piloted rising fruit orchards and making honey on hillfacets and has plans to increase. He currently leased 335 acres To assemble out the hillfacet rising mannequin.

Shortly after returning to West Virginia, Tartt joined the Vetperiodns & Heroes to Agriculture program run by way of the state’s Division of Agriculture. This method was started with a mission To assist vetperiodns or people transitioning out of the army to enter the agricultural sector.

Wright hereas Inside the program, he met Skye Edwards, who had found to farm rising up on the Japanese Band of Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. Tartt and Edwards decided To start out McDowell County Farms in 2013.

“[Edwards] was an previouser man. You understand how the previous-timers are, they don’t spare feelings,” Tartt says. “They solely give it to you straight. He actually taught me Tons: the enterprise facet of [farming], the science that goes into it. So, he gave me that Sort of perspective and actually assisted me To understand what went into this creation, However in addition The biggest Technique To revenue from it.”

Tartt and Edwards (who handed away in early 2021) linked up with West Virginia State College Extension Service. This method’s genperiodl objective is to empower The genperiodl public To regulate their entry to current meals. They Do this by connecting farmers, developers, and ranchers from underserved againgrounds, like Black and Brpersonal communities, or completely different people in Appalachia Who’re transitioning out of mining and timber and have restricted job prospects.

“Agriculture is An important An factor of our group supplies, Even when people don’t understand that,” says Christy Martin, The selection agriculture extension agent Inside the Agriculture and Pure Assets Division at West Virginia State College.

As Inside the case with Tartt, the extension program Helps farmers make the most of small spaces Which have not been traditionally Confacetred or meant to be agricultural land. 

“It’s like these little, tiny strips in flood plains, or spaces that had been an deserted lot, or one factor that had been An factor of a coal or timber opperiodtion, and now making an try to adapt those to agriculture,” says Martin. “So, In lots of circumstances, we’re not dealing in acreage. We’d even be dealing in sq. footage.”

The extension service is piloting a enterprise to develop fruit timber on what was previously logging land. The advantages are thOn the roads are already terraced from the logging enterprise And ought to make good use for planting orchards.

“And now, that space that wasn’t Getting used is now a productive orchard,” says Martin of the enterprise.

Collectively with orchards, Tartt says West Virginia has plentiful maple timber, which is an ignored market in West Virginia. Vermont is presently The very biggest producer of maple syrup in America, in accordance to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, producing virtually half of the nation’s current.

“A handful of counties in West Virginia might in all probability produce Higher than The complete state of Vermont,” says Tartt.

To construct An everlasting farming financial system, Tartt additionally factors to youthfuler farmers, a demographic the farming sector is lacking. In 2017, The typical age of a farmer Inside the U.S. was 57.5 years previous. In an effort To draw and develop youthfuler farmers, Tartt based a nonrevenue referred to as the American Youth Agripreneur Affiliation; however, Because of pandemic, the association has but to opperiodte at full performance.

“Reaping what you planted Inside The underfacet is A lovely factor,” says Michael Ferguson, prefacetnt of the nascent association.

Father and son, Jason and Jason Jr. Pictures by Suzanne Pender (USDA), Rebecca Haddix (USDA)

Ferguson, who May even be Black, grew up in McDowell County and has been rising crops and meals since he was youthful, having found from his grandparents. He has been farming with the Tartt househprevious for nearly 10 years and has now started his personal farm, Ferguson Farms. Ferguson first met Tartt by way of his son, Jason Jr., when Jason Jr. would promote produce from McDowell County Farms. Half of Ferguson’s position Shall be To assist steward the 335 acres that Tartt has leased. Just like Tartt, Ferguson Want To make the most of farming To reinforce The regular of life in his hometpersonal.

Ferguson factors to A pair of of factors that have cropped up in McDowell County In current occasions, together with drug use. He Means that people have forgotten the farming Way of life.

“That is who We’re; we’re the Mountain State. We farm round right here, And completely different people simply overlook. I simply Want to convey it again So that you will Have The power to nonetheless stay right here and have A great life.”


Natalie Peart
is a 1.5 period Caribbean-American multimedia journalist and artist dwelling on Lenapehoking lands (Brooklyn, NY). Her work facilities on the environment, spirituality, and various economies. SHe is an metropolis gardener who loves processing meals scraps and making windrows that Discover your self to be compost. Natalie is presently pursuing her grasp’s diploma On the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism wright here sHe is studying documentary filmmaking. SHe is a member of NABJ. She Could be reached at [e-mail protected]


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