Take Me Home, (Coal) Country Roads:
the Agrarian Tour through West Virginia
One of the unofficial theme songs for us – Agrarian Road Trippers – has been John Denver’s “Country Roads” – mainly because of the line “West Virginia. Mountain Mama. Take me home. Country Roads.” And West Virginia – or at least the southwest region – has her fair share of country roads. It is in the midst of these country roads that we have visited and shared stories – as well as a few bluegrass tunes, picked out on banjo and guitar – with fellow agrarian minded folks in Coal Country, West Virginia.
Day Six and Day Seven:
Our main contact in Mullens, West Virginia, is the organization Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), where we hook up with fellow young agrarians Jack and Becky. Jack has been working with RAIL since 2008. Originally from West Virginia, Jack was hired to start a farmers market in Mullens – only problem being there were no farmers. This is coal country. No one farms here. In order to tell his story of the work he has done with RAIL, Jack first had to share the story of coal in Mullens and her surrounding coal camps.
First off, there aren’t towns. There are coal camps – little “villages” created by the coal companies to house miners. These houses were built precariously upon steep mountain hillsides, with little space betwixt neighboring houses – seldom a yard or septic tank. Today, 65% of all sewage in Wyoming county is directly pumped into the river running through the camps. This is not to mention the additional run-off dumped by the coal industry. This is the water – should agriculture gain momentum – that will be used to irrigate gardens and livestock. In 2001, Mullens suffered a drastic flood, water climbing to ceilings on the first floor story of buildings and homes throughout the town. Although a flood to this magnitude is not common, seasonal flooding happens on a regular basis. For the beginning agrarian, having your garden washed away at least once per season is quite the discouraging start.
However, Jack sees gardening as one step towards self-sufficiency for the people living in communities historically tied to the coal industry. In former times, the coal companies outlawed gardening in coal camps – thus making coal miners and their families dependent on purchasing food from the mercantile stores operated by the coal companies. Although growing gardens is no longer illegal, the coal companies still own 85% of the land in Wyoming county where Mullens is seated. Another 5% of the land is owned by state and federal government – leaving a mere 10% of land available to the people for housing, parks, gardens and businesses.
“Coal is in the blood of the people,” one local woman from the organization, Friends of Milam Creek, told us. Out of the 20,000 people in Wyoming County, only 800 are employed in the coal industry. Employment in coal has drastically decrease with the rise in mechanization of the industry. Although most people living in coal country know at least one person who has died of black lung, jobs in the coal industry are the most sought-after. A coal miner with a high school education can make more money in a year than a college professor with a PhD. The balance of health-versus-wealth is a thin line to walk in the coal industry. Jobs for the remaining individuals span mechanical labor, food service and retail. Many area youth drift away from their communities when – and if – the opportunity arises.
With all these thoughts muddling up my mind, we head out to the RAIL Community Garden – to mull over thoughts and pull some weeds. In addition to locating spaces for community residents to “farm” – there is a stigma attached to the lesser work of gardening – RAIL provides workshops on growing food, canning and preserving, and hosts a farmers market on RAIL’s property. Fresh food is grown for sale at market, for donation to food pantries, and for family consumption of those who grow it. We visited a few more gardens before harvesting some vegetables for our own dinner. At our last stop I noticed two bumper stickers both at the same house: “Nader/Gonzalez” and “I ‘heart’ Coal” – an interesting combination rarely replicated in any other community.
It doesn’t take an agrarian-minded person to connect the story of coal country economics in Appalachia to mechanized, mono-cropped agriculture in the Midwest. (The average age of a farmer in America today is 57.) Disillusioned youth are encouraged to seek educational opportunities elsewhere due to the lack of vocational attachment to the industry of the area. To leave is to succeed. Rarely applauded or honored are those who choose to stay. To mine. To farm. Outside do-gooders with liberal arts educations grounded in service to community are heralded by their own communities as heroes. But those who choose to stay are seen as having missed their golden opportunity.
West Virginia, Mountain Mama. Country roads, take me home.
End Day Seven. End Part Three.