CHAVIES – Though for decades the coal business has remained a mainstay industry in Perry County and Eastern Kentucky, experts say to build a strong economic base this region should diversify, and agriculture could very well be a key to building that broader economy.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer was in Perry County Thursday where he dropped off several head of his own cattle at the D & D Ranch in Chavies, where hundreds of acres of a reclaimed strip mine are now being used for agricultural purposes.
“I would have normally sent my cattle to Iowa,” said Comer, a Republican former state representative and a farmer from western Kentucky who last year won his first term as commissioner. “I took them out here because I believe very passionately that you can do a lot more with agriculture here, and I want to put my money where my mouth is.”
Comer drove the cattle to Chavies using his own vehicle and trailer, and is picking up the cost himself.
“I believe that we can have a lot more cattle here,” he added. “It’s one thing for me, a politician, to roll into Hazard and say all this stuff and then leave. I want to show people that I believe in Eastern Kentucky and the Ag. capacity here.”
There is a largely untapped agricultural market right here in Perry County, Comer believes, in the form of thousands of acres of former surface mines now sitting largely vacant, coupled with many more acres of underutilized bottom land in the lush hollows between the hills.
Here in Hazard the potential fruits of new flat land from surface mining are obvious, from the development at Morton Blvd. to the land where a new elementary school is currently being constructed along Highway 80. By and large, however, most reclaimed surface mine sites are not being used for any commercial purposes. According to recent state data, only three percent of the land covered by surface mining permits was slated for development.
Though former mine sites aren’t normally suitable for vegetation like corn, other plant species grow well on these types of soils, including grasses for cattle and fruit trees. Comer used as an example his visit to Chavies this week, where roughly two inches of top soil covering the old surface mine is producing what Comer termed the “best stand of grass” he has seen in Kentucky this year. And there are many more opportunities for growing open to local landowners.
“There should be more orchards,” Comer continued, adding that with today’s technology a new orchard can begin producing fruit by its third year. “The food that is consumed in Perry County is imported into Perry County. Even though this area is very mountainous, you have the ability to have more orchards here, more vineyards. I think organic would be great here, and that would add value.”
Currently in Perry County, there are no commercial orchards or vineyards. Additionally in 2009, out of the estimated 10,661 acres of farmland in Perry County, only 550 were active in harvesting hay, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s good for a rank of 100 out of 120 counties.
And even with D & D Ranch leading the way in efforts to turn former mine lands into suitable grazing property, the county ranked 112th in the amount of cattle and calves, and 98th for the amount of beef cattle in the state.
There is certainly room for growth, Comer continued, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture can work with landowners on potential land uses. The department can send people to the area and assess the soil and give the landowners options on what type of vegetation will grow well on their land.
But there is one plant for which farmers would need little guidance in terms of cultivation and could represent an economic boon, but no farmer in Kentucky is currently growing: hemp.
Comer recently joined U.S. Senator Rand Paul in a call to legalize industrial hemp, which has a variety of uses ranging from lubricants and biofuels to textiles, but closely resembles marijuana. And while it does not produce a euphoric high when ingested, it’s that resemblance to marijuana that prevents hemp from being commercially grown here in the U.S.
“The good thing about hemp, it would open up opportunities for manufacturing jobs, and we need those jobs in Kentucky badly,” Comer said, adding that hemp grows well on marginal land, like here in Eastern Kentucky, and it can be harvested with the same equipment used to harvest hay.
In a bad economy hemp’s legalization has become an issue embraced on both sides of the political aisle. Comer said officials in Frankfort are currently brainstorming on a bill for the state legislature, and many members of the General Assembly are supportive of such a measure, though others remain either on the fence or opposed. He added that Sen. Paul will file a bill in the U.S. Senate, and the issue has become one that is growing support.
“I think industrial hemp will be legal, regardless of who the next president is, within two years,” he said.
There has been some push-back from lawmakers, however, and especially from officials in the law enforcement community who argue that hemp fields would allow farmers to easily hide fields of marijuana and add to the growing illegal drug problem.
Comer, however, described his department as the largest regulatory agency in Kentucky, and could take on the regulation of hemp growth by registering fields to ensure that marijuana is not a part of the crop. He said his agency could do so without having to add personnel.
“Everything you find out about [hemp] is good,” Comer said. “It’s a green crop, you don’t have to put any insecticides on it, and you don’t have to put nitrogen fertilizer on it. The only downside is some people in law enforcement are down on it, but they shouldn’t be.”
In terms of agriculture, the western part of the state, where acres upon acres of flat land provide ideal farmland, is already capitalizing on agribusiness. Eastern Kentucky could be as well, Comer contends, but it’s going to take some thinking outside the box to get there. The topography does present challenges here, but there is potential for agritourism with orchards and wineries, expanded ranching operations, and livestock farms.
While Comer said he supports the state’s coal industry, considering a lack of demand that coal is currently experiencing, it’s time to begin thinking more about agriculture and the benefits it could represent.
“You have some Ag. here, but I don’t think you’re scraping the surface of what you could have,” Comer said. “And that’s economic development.”