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Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future

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 coal’s decline are everywhere.

The old company store is a mining museum. The brick schoolhouse, on a hillside overlooking the historic town, is an inn, said to be haunted. Abandoned houses lay crumbling in the hollows.

Yet on a spring afternoon, something unusual — construction work — 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.

Carl Shoupe, 69, a retired miner and member of the local power board, organized the project with help from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a progressive advocacy group.

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.


A road sign stuck into a tree near Benham, Ky. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

“I 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,” he said.

To Mr. Shoupe, the retrofitting is a small step on the daunting path toward what environmentalists call a “just transition” — economic growth that does not harm people’s health or the land. To Joshua Bates, 21, who spent the afternoon blowing insulation into Mrs. Cope’s basement, it means a job in the region he calls home.

“A lot of people have left,” Mr. Bates said sadly. “Eighty percent of my friends are gone.”

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 Howard’s 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 father’s business, helping mining companies navigate the cumbersome permit bureaucracy.

But by 2009, with fewer permits being handed out, the company closed. “That sort of catapulted me into this farming thing,” he said.


Nathan Hall, left, and Todd Howard checked a field of hemp, one of six sites the pair manages. Instead of a silver bullet, Mr. Hall said, “We want to be a part of the silver buckshot that’s going to hopefully transform this region.” 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 “out of necessity,” said Martin Richards, who runs Kentucky’s Community Farm Alliance. His group works with eight farmers’ 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 — including five acres of reclaimed surface mine — and have big dreams to scale up.

People here often say there will be no silver bullets, but rather “one thousand silver BBs” to replace lost coal jobs. Mr. Hall offers a variation: “We want to be a part of the silver buckshot,” he said, “that’s going to hopefully transform this region.”

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