Hasan Jasim – When coal mines are closing down they leave dead lands and unemployment behind, but one West Virginia farm is bringing life back to their lands that bloom with lavender today. We wish more lands would get covered in such a tranquil purple color!
Former strip mines aren’t the first place you think of when it comes to sustainable agriculture, beekeeping, or the wellness industry. But a project in southwestern West Virginia is looking to change that. Called Appalachian Botanical Company, the company is growing lavender and raising bees on a former mining site, and then turning its harvests into essential oils, body creams, and other value-added products.
The goal is twofold: To provide a viable and economically sustainable path to rehabilitate mining land and to create dignified and above-minimum-wage job opportunities for individuals with barriers to traditional employment.
Founder Jocelyn Sheppard came to the idea after working on a grant-funded project to raise lavender on 2.5 acres of a former mine in Hernshaw, West Virginia. Why lavender, and why strip mines?
“Lavender is actually a really tough plant. It hoards nutrients and tolerates drought,” Sheppard tells Treehugger. “While it’s important to have clean water, and to avoid contaminants in the soil, you also don’t want too good soil or too much water—otherwise the lavender will suffer. A lot of home gardeners kill their plants with kindness.”
After the grant money dried up for the first particular project, she realized there was potential for a more commercial model. Having explored a co-op structure first, she realized co-ops don’t work unless there is trust between people and a shared belief in the idea being developed. Both of those can be challenging to foster when trying to move fast to do something new.
So instead, she started Appalachian Botanical as a private enterprise. They secured an investor and a location in 2018, the fledgling company planted up its site in 2019—and reaped its first harvest last year. The site, which in this case is located on an existing mining operation, is obviously critical for any agricultural enterprise. When asked what the company needed to look out for in terms of both quality and safety, Sheppard explains:
“Well, you always have to be careful about heavy metals and contaminants in any type of farming. But because of the remediation and testing that the mining company is required to do by law, the water and soil on our site are actually really good. We also test the soil before we plant, and we test the oils we produce for any contaminants too. And the results have been great.”
When asked about public perception and the fact that consumers might not be expecting to buy quality farmed products from the site of an old mine, Sheppard says:
“There’s a lot of power in the unexpected, so I’m really interested in how our story can be an asset in terms of marketing. But it’s also important to dispel myths. When people think of old strip mines, folks often think of really barren, alien looking landscapes—and those places do exist. Our site didn’t look like that. There had already been some remediation work done, and the site was seeded with grasses and even pioneer trees. ”
The company began creating products in the fall of 2020, right in the thick of the pandemic. Societal disruption impacted their launch.
“It definitely messed with our supply chains,” says Sheppard. “When you’re launching a business like this, you need to secure inventory: closures, labels, that type of thing. That’s hard to do when the world is shut down, and it’s even harder to do if you don’t have the relationships in place to do it. In that sense, we were also hampered by an inability to travel to tradeshows and networking opportunities too—which also obstructed our efforts to build a distribution network.”
The company currently operates with a lease from the landowner and the cooperation of the mining company. Yet given the well-documented challenges the coal industry is facing—challenges which did not abate with changes in political administrations—Sheppard weighs in on the long-term vision in terms of moving beyond coal in the community. She is clear neither she nor the company wants to get involved in the culture wars around coal.
“I see this as a truly purple project. Regardless of your views on the past, present, or future of coal, it’s fairly clear to everyone in our community that we need to diversify our economy—and we need to find safe and productive uses for the land that’s no longer being mined,” says Sheppard. “Folks have seen over a decade of company after company closing down, and that doesn’t seem to be getting better. So the community is very interested in and supportive of our efforts to explore something new.”
The company’s social mission includes providing employment opportunities to folks with addiction issues, criminal records, no high school diploma, or other barriers that might prevent them from getting a job. Sheppard emphasizes her workforce has been a huge asset in getting the project off the ground.
“I look at the portraits of our workforce on the website and I see people with dignity, tenacity, and determination. They are deeply committed, and their experience and background are what’s helping us succeed,” she says. “That said, I don’t want to romanticize this. People have challenges, and they have problems. So we invest in services to get them the support and help that allows them to do their jobs. We’re not a social services organization—but we work closely with non-profits, economic development, and social service agencies to make sure our workers are supported.”
With 40 acres now under cultivation and 85 jobs created in the process, the company is already having an impact. There are plans to expand too: With more than 100 acres available at the current site, Appalachian Botanical is actively working to get more plants in the ground and more people employed.
In a long-term vision for when the mine is no longer around, Sheppard suggests there may be opportunities to diversify like stepping into agritourism or other forms of income generation, for example. Not one to gatekeep, Sheppard has wise advice for those interested in setting up a similar project.
“You have to have local knowledge, you have to have relationships in the community, you have to have patience, and you have to recognize that you are moving into something new, and you are asking others to do that with you,” she explains. “If you’re creating value-added products, you also have to recognize that it is a labor and cost intensive project, and have the resources lined up in advance. We’re operating on a 15-year agricultural lease, and we plan to be around for the long-term—and we can only make a real difference in the community if we are. So make sure you can sustain yourself in the long-term before you make commitments to the community you’re operating in.
What a great example of how an area is changing for the better and good to see that the ex miners are finding new employment too.