Economic Diversity: 8 Ideas with Momentum Inside Appalachia

Mar 2, 2018

It isn’t news that Appalachia is struggling economically. If you’ve followed the boom-bust cycle of the coal industry, you know that we’ve been here before. 

Coal production in Appalachia fell by almost half between 2005 and 2015. During the same years, coal industry employment fell by around 27 percent, and most of those losses were in central Appalachia. In the past year, the coal industry has rebounded a little, but most economists agree, coal alone is not the answer to the region's financial problems.

But some people see these challenges as opportunities. This week's episode of Inside Appalachia features eight innovative ideas, created by Appalachians, for Appalachians. 

Using Coal to Blast Rockets into Space

Coal has gotten a dirty reputation. There’s a strong push to eliminate coal mining, and the jobs that come with it, in order to lower carbon dioxide emissions. But coal can be used for more than energy. We’ll learn about one inventor, named Brian Joseph, who is using Appalachian coal to help build rockets headed for outer space.

Trail Towns

As the steel and coal industries fade, small towns in Appalachia are struggling to survive, and sometimes it seems like that struggle is the only thing people in other parts of the country know about Appalachia. But for the past 20 years, entrepreneurs have quietly been working on a different strategy, one that leverages the region's natural beauty and resources to grow Appalachia’s economy. In this show we hear about the steady climb of the tourism industry in parts of Appalachia. 

Making Rare Earth Elements Out of Coal Waste 

Acid drainage from an Ohio mine.
Credit Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm

Not all creeks and rivers in Appalachia are pretty, or even safe. Here in Appalachian coal country, there are thousands of miles of streams that run bright orange with acid mine drainage. But one industry’s waste is another industry’s riches. We’ll hear how researchers are aiming to turn coal waste into valuable high-tech products.

Lavender Farming

Lavender being grown on a strip mine in Boone County, W.Va.
Credit Janet Kunicki/ WVPB

Many Appalachian mountains have been blasted, stripped, and hollowed for their valuable riches. What’s left behind is usually a barren landscape that doesn’t seem good for much, but imagine if they could be covered with fields of purple.

We’ll hear from farmers in West Virginia who hope lavender could give the state’s struggling economy a boost.

Lavender isn’t the only herb that grows in our region. According to biologists, our mountains are rich with some of the most ecologically diverse forests in the country, making this a ripe place to harvest medicinal herbs, like ginseng and goldenseal. Economists say that herbal supplements and vitamins are a $30 billion industry in the United States. Worldwide, they’re even more popular with consumers. But harvesting these wild plants has mostly been considered a side job, not a main occupation for Appalachians. We’ll learn what one organization in southwest Virginia, called Appalachia Sustainable Development (ASD), is doing to help connect sustainable medicinal farmers with big companies. According to ASD, in the project's first year, a total of 3 forest farmers sold $2,400 of forest grown verified and organic certified blue and black cohosh. 

Higher Education Teams Up to Tackle to Economic Development

As we’ve reported on in our Struggle to Stay series, Appalachia is struggling with population loss. From 2016-2017, West Virginia’s population decreased by more than 15,000 people. Some of this loss has to do with an aging population, but others look to the economic challenges as one of the reasons the state is shrinking.

“If there were things here that they could do and positions that they could take, they’d stay. People don’t want to leave their homes and their families,” said Dr. Kendra Boggess, president of Concord University in Mercer County, West Virginia.

She and other higher education leaders in West Virginia have joined together to launch an initiative, called the Alliance for the Economic Development of Southern West Virginia, which focuses on economic development solutions for Southern West Virginia.

Some counties in this area are dealing with an economic climate comparable to that of the Great Depression. These are big challenges and the vision of the initiative is that some of the solutions can be found locally, in the experts and resources on college campuses. The project aims to collaborate with entrepreneurs and municipalities.

Program Aims to Keep Young People in Appalachia

With so many people leaving Appalachia in search of work, some employers are feeling the strain. It’s sometimes difficult to find skilled, educated workers. A non-profit called Generation WV has launched a new fellowship program, called Impact WV, which is trying to help match businesses with skilled workers who want to stay in West Virginia. 

Tech Jobs for Appalachia

Jobs in the tech industry may not be what Appalachia has been known for, but it could be a big part of our future. A project in eastern Kentucky, called Tech Hire, received several million dollars from the federal government to teach software development to people in the coalfields. The program stirred up some controversy last year, after there were questions about just how many new jobs the program was able to create. Program organizers say they learned some lessons about how to make sure more trainees end up with gainful employment.

And Inside Appalachia host Jessica Lilly closes the episode with some personal thoughts about the future of economic development in our region.
"Sometimes folks have land that’s made mostly of rocks, with little soil and plant nutrients, so innovators find a plant, lavender, with such resilience that it still grows. While these aren’t supporting an entire economy or community just yet, I’d like to think, this is just the beginning."

Most of the stories in this episode are part of a series called “Appalachian Innovators”, which was made possible with support from the Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission.  

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Ibby Caputo edited this episode. Patrick Stephens is our audio mixer. Jesse Wright is our executive producer. 

We’d love to hear from you. Find us on Twitter -- @inappalachia, or email insideappalachia@wvpublic.org