New Appalachia Proud program could boost eastern Kentucky agriculture

Eastern Kentucky’s local food and agriculture sector has struggled to match the progress seen by its neighbors in West Virginia, southeast Ohio and southwest Virginia. But yesterday, Kentucky’s agriculture secretary, James Comer, unveiled a new brand and program that could give the region’s small farmers a leg up. “Appalachia Proud: Mountains of Potential” is a new brand that falls under the statewide “Kentucky Proud” label. Along with the new branding opportunity, Appalachia Proud wants to work with area universities to develop “niche agricultural products” and Farm to Campus programs, as well as reviving Future Farmers of America and farm-to-school programs at eastern Kentucky schools. (The plan also calls for “Economic Freedom Zones” in the region, a problematic proposal that we’ll explore in a later blog post.)

Place-based branding is an important part of developing a local food economy. For consumers inside the region, it helps to know that what they’re buying comes from nearby and supports the local economy. For buyers outside the region, an Appalachian brand sells a sense of place and connection to heritage foodways. Other Appalachian regions already have their own brands, including Food We Love in southeast Ohio, Appalachian Harvest in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, Greenbrier Valley Grown in West Virginia, and Appalachian Grown in eastern North Carolina.

For a place-based brand to work well, the customer must be able to trust the standards of that brand, according to a study commissioned by the Central Appalachian Network. The promotional material for Appalachia Proud states that the “regional brand celebrates the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the region while at the same time honoring its traditions. The logo enables consumers all over the world to immediately identify a quality product from Eastern Kentucky….” Are there quality criteria that must be met before being able to use the Appalachia Proud label? Appalachia Proud is part of the Kentucky Proud label, which paints Kentucky-made products with a broad brush. Products can be made in Kentucky, but use ingredients from outside the region, for example. Allowing poor-quality products or those that aren’t exactly from the region to use the label could dilute the brand and make it less meaningful. On the other hand, the Kentucky Proud label arguably has been quite successful, so we are hopeful for the same success with Appalachia Proud.

The educational component is a key factor in the long-term success of agriculture in the region. In many places in eastern Kentucky, demand for local products outstrips supply – we simply need more farmers, ranchers and food producers. We must foster agricultural intelligence in our young people and give them the option to make a living at home in the mountains if they so choose.

Industrial hemp is also part of the picture. Last year, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill that allowed production of industrial hemp if the federal government authorized it as well. Just last month, the federal Farm Bill allowed production of industrial hemp for research purposes, through university, college and state agriculture programs. Eastern Kentucky will be home to two of five industrial hemp research sites. Kentucky State University will work with a veteran-farmer program to grow Kentucky heirloom hemp seed, and the University of Kentucky will research “growing cannabinoids for medical research.”

Kentucky was once a center of hemp production, and could be again. Secretary Comer and Attorney General Jack Conway are applying for a federal waiver that would allow Kentucky to grow hemp for commercial purposes – not just for research. Hemp could be a boon for eastern Kentucky’s economy and could be grown on surface-mined land. In Canada, where industrial hemp is legally grown, the plant generated an estimated US$900 – $1000 an acre, well above the typical revenue per acre for soybeans or corn in Kentucky. Hemp manufacturing is also a possibility.

The agricultural components of Appalachia Proud are encouraging, and an positive sign for eastern Kentucky’s economic transition. "We believe when you look at economic development and ways to diversify the economy here in Eastern Kentucky, agriculture should be front and center," Comer said. "We import just about all of our food in this part of the state, and it doesn't have to be that way." Local food advocates in the region have been saying this for some time, and we’re looking forward to seeing the movement come into its own.