Mountaintop removal mining has left Appalachia with more than 800 square miles of empty land, much of it too remote and unstable to attract any sort of industry. Kentucky's Commissioner of Agriculture, James Comer, thinks more of this land should be used for agriculture – in particular, cattle and fruit orchards. A recent article in the Hazard Herald reports:
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.
It was great to see Commissioner Comer's support for local foods, wineries and agritourism in the region, types of businesses that have been growing in other areas of Central Appalachia but which have been slower to develop in Eastern Kentucky. Comer also promotes a slightly more controversial agricultural product: industrial hemp.
It's currently illegal to grow hemp in the US, though it once was a very important cash crop for the country and Kentucky in particular. Used to make paper, clothing, and even plastic, hemp is not the same as its cousin, marijuana – it won't get you high if you smoke it. (However, the plants look similar enough that law enforcement worries that hemp will be used to mask marijuana plants.) According to the article:
"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….
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.