Beating the Odds
In Va. coal country, a return to agriculture?
LEBANON, Va. (Nov. 28, 2017) — It was past time for Kelsey Davidson’s class to check their animals on a recent overcast day at Lebanon High School.
The 25-year-old teacher led her students outside to a pen encircling a new barn at the edge of campus, which rests against a rolling Appalachian backdrop, and the students retrieved a reluctant trio of sheep named Fred, Bam Bam and Wilma so they could be weighed and given deworming medication.
Dominick Hall, a husky, 270-pound senior on the varsity football team, helped push a stubborn Wilma before the students. Davidson grabbed the sheep by its halter.
“To worm this,” she said, gripping a small bottle of dewormer, “you’re just gonna, like—”
She pressed the tip of the bottle into Wilma’s mouth, administering the fluid as the sheep yanked its head back in protest. Another student held the animal in place.
“Let him kind of chew that down for a minute,” Davidson said, waiting. “And she’s wormed.”
After several students struggled to move Fred into place, Hall grabbed him by his leash and pushed him before the group.
“Dom’s the sheep whisperer,” Davidson said, and the class chuckled.
They spent the rest of the hour learning more about deworming — how parasites can infest sheep and how a farmer should rotate dewormers seasonally to prevent resistance. As high school agriculture classes go, it was unremarkable, but Davidson’s class and others like it across the school district have taken on a new significance in Russell County over the last two years.
An aggressive, decades-long decline in regional coal production has hit local economies hard in southwestern Virginia, and the consequences for Russell County have been grave, local officials said. A shrunken coal industry has lead to a shrinking population, smaller school and local government budgets and more damaging symptoms of economic decline such as rising rates of opioid addiction, crime and a growing foster care system.
Two years ago, Russell County officials decided to bet their future on agriculture, and one of the county’s first moves has been reinvesting in education — hiring agriculture teachers, adding classes and re-acclimating students to a farming environment.
The goal: to reawaken the county’s interest in farming.
“I just want [students] to have opportunities,” said Davidson, a Virginia Tech graduate who was raised on a southwest Virginia farm. “There’s not a lot of options here in Russell County, and I’d hate to have to see them leave home just to find a job.”
In 1990, Virginia mined more than 45 million tons of coal at an estimated value of nearly $1.5 billion, much of it from the Southwest Virginia Coalfield, which abuts Tennessee and West Virginia and spans several counties, including a portion of Russell. By 2015, yearly production had dropped by two-thirds due to tougher federal regulations, rising natural gas production and a rapidly emerging alternative energy industry.
The effect on Russell was dramatic. A county tax on coal production yields less than ever, and over the last five years, the county’s yearly budget dropped from $32 million to $26 million, said Lonzo Lester Jr., county administrator. While Virginia’s total population booms, Russell County’s is shrinking, standing at less than 23,000, and the county school district lost 10 percent of its students in the last five years.
“There’s very few people moving into the area right now,” said Steve Breeding, chairman of the county board of supervisors.
In response, local officials began in 2015 the work of reorienting the county toward a more agricultural future less dependent on coal. There was already a strong foundation. Cattle, goats and other livestock graze the region’s rocky hillsides, and many local coal workers were raised on farms and maintained them while they mined, local officials said.
“We have had a rich heritage with agriculture,” said Gregory Brown, county school superintendent. “That went by the wayside, I guess, during the strength of the coal industry.”
The district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire four new agriculture teachers for its three high schools and vocational school. Greenhouses and barns with pasture areas were built on each campus, and they’ve deepened the county’s agricultural curriculum. The county’s two canneries have also been introduced to students so they can learn to produce and market local food.
“It went pretty quick, that’s for sure,” Brown said. “This became a grassroots movement with our community, that we needed to look at rekindling our agriculture program.”
Two years into her job, Davidson teaches several agriculture classes. The first is a general introduction to the field, including consumer issues such as how to evaluate meat marbling at a grocery store. There is an animal science class, where students learn anatomy and biology, and an animal production management class.
“It’s ‘How can I go from baby calf to market? How can I go from my lamb to market?’” Davidson said. “They get more hands-on.”
Her students’ interest in farming varies, Davidson said, though some have sought agricultural careers. Freshman Darrin Taylor may be one of them. He lives on a cattle farm his father runs, and he said he notices the region’s changing economy. Family members have been let go from jobs in the coal industry, and a friend of his moved to Alabama so his father could find employment.
But he said he’s worked extensively with sheep and cattle, and in Davidson’s class, he learned about tobacco and different cattle breeds — things he wasn’t exposed to on his family’s farm. All of it, he hopes, leads toward a local future in agriculture.
“Farming’s always kind of interested me,” he said.
Freshman Dixie White is similar. She inherited a 150-acre livestock farm from a deceased uncle, and she said she sees herself there, working the land, after she graduates.
“I just like animals. Feeding them. Breeding,” she said.
It’s important that other students do as well. Russell County was recently part of a strategic plan designed for the region by Virginia Tech to help boost the economy. It’s message: double down on agriculture, the state’s biggest industry. Regionally, farm employment is stable, and its cattle industry is growing. Cattle and calf inventory grew 17 percent from 2002 to 2012, fueled in part by a booming national interest in local food.
There are regional plans to build an agricultural industrial park. To create Appalachian brands of food that can be locally canned and distributed. To expand regional value-added facilities and grow the number of meat processors. Tens of millions of dollars would need to be invested.
“Farming, through its ups and downs has been here through the Great Depression,” said David Eaton, a member of the county’s board of supervisors who also served on the committee that helped produce the Virginia Tech report. “I feel like we can market ourselves and produce a product that has grandma’s picture on the can and says, ‘Southern Appalachia Apple Butter’.”
But the county’s youngest have to be a part of that, and it’s not a low-stakes bet. Economic decline has darkened the prospects of many Appalachian communities, and Russell County hasn’t been spared, Breeding said.
“When the commonwealth attorney tells me that, ‘I’m starting to see the third generation of people that I have tried for drug-related issues,’ that tells you that you’ve got a terrible cycle that’s ongoing,” he said. “What we’re trying to do with some of these programs is to break that cycle. Get these kids, show them that there is a better way. It’s maybe out here on the farm.”
Back in the classroom, Davidson was teaching her students why they’d walked outside to deworm each of their sheep.
“Let’s say that Wilma had worms,” she said to the class. “Can the other ones contract the worms from Wilma?”
The class nodded yes.
“From her poop,” Davidson said. “They step in each other’s feces. They probably ingest each other’s feces, and those worms are going to get in her stomach, OK, so we have to worm all of them.”
Local officials said it’s too soon to fully evaluate how the county’s investment in agriculture is going. It’s only been two years, but Davidson’s class may provide some encouragement. Last year, she taught one class of 20 students who signed up.
This year, across five classes, she’s teaching 63.
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