By Kyle Lovern
For many years leaders in Mingo County have said the economy needs to be diversified.
This area has long depended on employment from the coal mining industry and its residual offspring, such as the railroad, to balance the economy.
Now the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, under the direction of former House of Delegates member Steve Kominar, hopes that agriculture is the wave of the future for this area.
“When we did our strategic plan for the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, one of the things that became glaringly obvious to us is that agriculture is an industry that we have completely forgotten about,” Kominar said.
“I looked at the USDA report and it classified us as agriculturally barren,” he added. “If you start thinking about that, if something were to happen to our food chain, then we would go hungry.”
Kominar, along with others, believe that all of the postmine land that is now available is the ideal location for several projects that could become successful business ventures.
“It seems like we could do something on this land,” Kominar said. “We have 12 different partner agencies now and are working toward this goal.
“We have everything from hog farms and cattle and sheep farms,” Kominar said. “We can use the waste from these farms to put back into our mine-scarred land to make it productive in a couple of years.
“We have thousands of developable acres,” Kominar said. “We just aren’t utilizing this land.”
Kominar and others have taken trips to other areas of the country to see similar projects. They are hoping to learn from those agricultural developments in places like Southern Ohio to try to make these types of projects successful in Southern West Virginia.
Kominar would like to see more local farming. He said there is a market for these types of ventures.
He said the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition has done a great job with the Farmers Market in downtown Williamson and the community gardens in East Williamson.
“We would like to expand upon this,” he added.
“One of our high schools – Tug Valley – now has an agricultural department and has built its own greenhouse,” Kominar said. “They are doing a great job with that.”
“This tells us there is an interest. This could become a big industry in Mingo County,” Kominar said of future entrepreneurs.
Kominar said statistics show that West Virginians consume billions of dollars worth of agricultural products, but the state only produces a small fraction of those foods and products.
“Basic math tells us there is a significant market for agricultural products here in our state and Mingo County,” Kominar said.
He said in other countries some families can take four or five acres and grow enough products to make a living.
Kominar had previously announced that the state would be locating a hog farm in Mingo County. This will likely be on a former mountaintop mining site. Kominar has identified one location near Laurel Creek that would be suitable for such a farm.
Another product that might be developed in West Virginia and in this region is hemp. The climate for this plant, which is a distant cousin to marijuana, is perfect.
“The MCRA is one of the frontrunners for getting permits to allow the growth of industrial hemp in this state,” Kominar said.
Kentucky already has a nonprofit organization that is identifying what plants of this type will grow best in this region.
Hemp is a plant that is low in THC, but it can be used for such products as rope. However, there are many more uses for this plant. Hemp is used for many varieties of products, including the manufacturing of durable clothing. Hemp products are commonly blended with other organic fibers such as flax, cotton or silk, for apparel and furnishings.
It can also be used to make an oil, and studies are being done to see if it can be used for medicinal purposes.
A survey in 2003 showed that more than 95 percent of hemp seed sold was used in animal and bird feed. Hemp seed is also used as a fishing bait.
In addition, Hemp is used for industrial purposes, including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, insulation, body products, health food and biofuel.
Currently the United States is importing these products. But, if they could be grown here, it could be a big economic boost to Appalachia.
The MCRA is working with West Virginia University and West Virginia State to see what other agricultural products might be grown on postmine land.
In the past, experimental farms grew grapes, blackberries, apples and peaches in Mingo County.
Many think these kinds of crops, and perhaps potato farming, could be productive, and provide a food source for the state. A good example of another state that depends greatly on farming is Idaho.
Idaho is an important agricultural state, producing nearly one-third of the potatoes grown in the United States. They also grow three varieties of wheat known as, Dark Northern Spring, Hard Red, and Soft White.
This is a huge part of that state’s economy.
Kominar and his board at the MCRA hope that agriculture will be a successful venture for Mingo County. The sky is the limit for the economic impact this industry could have in this part of the state.
Kyle Lovern is sports editor of the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-235-4242, ext. 33 or on Twitter @KyleLovern.