Benham was built a century ago as a coal mining camp by a subsidiary of International Harvester, which mined the nearby hillsides, extracting coal to make steel. Today, the signs of coalâs decline are everywhere.
Yet on a spring afternoon, something unusual â construction work â was going on. It was part of a project to retrofit old company houses like one owned by Pearl Cope, 83, a retired mine company receptionist whose home is so energy inefficient she pays up to $ 650 a month for heat during the winter.
Mr. Shoupe, a onetime union organizer, is no fan of the coal industry. Badly injured in the mines, he sports a goatee to cover scars on his chin and wears an orthopedic shoe with a two-inch lift to compensate for a mangled left leg. He got into environmental advocacy about a decade ago, after giving up alcohol and finding God.
Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times
âI got to looking around, when all this mountaintop removal and strip mining and tearing up of our beautiful mountains was going on, and I started praying about it,â he said.
To Mr. Shoupe, the retrofitting is a small step on the daunting path toward what environmentalists call a âjust transitionâ â economic growth that does not harm peopleâs health or the land. To Joshua Bates, 21, who spent the afternoon blowing insulation into Mrs. Copeâs basement, it means a job in the region he calls home.
âA lot of people have left,â Mr. Bates said sadly. âEighty percent of my friends are gone.â
Tomatoes and Hemp
The road to Hippo, Ky., snakes through a hollow in Floyd County that runs across Brush Creek, not far from where Todd Howardâs ancestors settled after the Revolutionary War.
Mr. Howard, 36, a seventh-generation Kentuckian, grew up here, learning to dodge coal trucks on his bike and watching miners tromp off to work toting their lunch buckets. When he was 19, he joined his fatherâs business, helping mining companies navigate the cumbersome permit bureaucracy.
But by 2009, with fewer permits being handed out, the company closed. âThat sort of catapulted me into this farming thing,â he said.
Credit Mike Belleme for The New York Times
His path into farming began in February 2010, when he persuaded his wife that they should put a greenhouse in their backyard, and planted 42 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Out-of-work Kentuckians are increasingly turning to farming âout of necessity,â said Martin Richards, who runs Kentuckyâs Community Farm Alliance. His group works with eight farmersâ markets in eastern Kentucky, including one Mr. Howard helped found with another seventh-generation Kentuckian, Nathan Hall; Mr. Richards says twice as many farmers participate as did five years ago.
In 2014, Congress allowed certain states, including Kentucky, to begin farming industrial hemp after a ban of 60 years. Mr. Hall, 33, a Yale M.B.A. student who also studies environmental management (and briefly worked as a miner), was already exploring the idea of growing hemp, first cultivated in Kentucky in 1775.
Today, with grants from companies like Patagonia, the clothing manufacturer, he and Mr. Howard are growing hemp on six sites in four counties â including five acres of reclaimed surface mine â and have big dreams to scale up.
People here often say there will be no silver bullets, but rather âone thousand silver BBsâ to replace lost coal jobs. Mr. Hall offers a variation: âWe want to be a part of the silver buckshot,â he said, âthatâs going to hopefully transform this region.â