Real Life in Appalachia
Turning the Tractor Wheels and New Beginnings
The cameras are gone. The politicians have left the building. A crowd estimated at 400 has thinned to a few hillbilly farmers packing up their vendor booths after the unveiling of Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer’s new initiative “Appalachia Proud Mountains of Potential.”
Tears stream down my face. There is a catch in my voice. But I am smiling and my heart is filled with a new found joy. This day is long overdue. Some said it would never happen. Even I had my doubts. But mark it on your calendars February 17, 2014 will be remembered as a day that set the tractor wheels in motion for Kentucky’s Appalachia.
I am not a political animal. I keep my political opinions to myself. It is rare for me to publicly praise a politician.
However, I am a people person, and let me tell you Jamie Comer continues to surprise me. There’s an old adage here in the mountains, “You have two ears and one mouth use them accordingly.” Maybe Comer’s momma was from the mountains. I dunno, but she done good.
A politician that comes to Appalachia and actually listens is a rare thing. Even rarer is one that does not take the easy road and sings the tired old refrain “What is WRONG with Appalachia?” Comer plows a new row saying “What is RIGHT about Appalachia and how can we make it better?”
Frankly, I am dumbfounded. With all the snow we have had here on Johns Creek, I almost convinced myself it was some cruel dream and hell had surely frozen over.
Is this for real?
I blink. There in front of me at the Knott County Sports Complex near Hindman, the displays stand as a witness. There’s the “Appalachia Proud” logo. There are photos. Very real photos. Photos I took; what I see as the existing success stories and future victories farmers in Appalachia can accomplish.
There is Coleen Dotson of Good Shepherd Cheese. I milked sheep there.
There is a photo of eggplants laying across the rail here at the big red barn. I grew those.
There is a hand offering up Bill Best’s Conover beans a confetti of red, black, and white seeds. I call that the promise of tomorrow.
And lastly, there is my own reluctant farmer Charlie Pinson walking past a withered cornfield with bright winter greens in the foreground and tagging alongside him my dear friend Cathy Rehmeyer’s daughter. Past, present and future we are Appalachia Proud.
A Day to Rejoice
This is deeply personal moment. Appalachia is hurting and this agricultural initiative can be one key element in economic development as well as food freedom. This is macro and micro. “Mountains of Potential” is not a clever tagline, it is fact.
I am a farmer. I am a champion of cushaws, and a purveyor of pawpaws. I am one of the secret folks that plant ramps in the forest when no one is looking. We will repopulate the stinky leeks of delicacy for the next generation; thanks to David Cooke and the folks at Grow Appalachia! I believe in the potential of agriculture to redefine the way we in the hills identify ourselves and reshape our destiny.
As I greeted Appalachian friends who farm, who have a very real vested interest in mountain agriculture, there was much hugging, much dancing in the aisles, outbursts of giggles, and a few tears of happiness. It was so good to share this moment, this turning point in our battle.
Yes, James Comer is a very different kind of politician. Some might say crazy. But he listens. He shows up. He has given us a gift, this Appalachia Proud brand. It is a foundation to build upon.
I did not need a bumper sticker to know I am Appalachia Proud, but it is kind of nice! But now I am not alone, I am a member of a very determined group of hillbilly farmers that will take this brand to the next level. Shout outs to Todd Howard, Cathy Rehmeyer, Tammy Horn, Nathan Hall, Mike Lewis, Will Bowling, Maggie Ashmore, Sister KC, and my husband Charlie Pinson who dig in the dirt, who work silently in the forests, who raise up their voices and say “We ARE Appalachia Proud.”
Hats off to all the Extension folks in the mountains who have supported this effort. Special thanks to the crew at UK Extension’s Robinson Center who show day in and day out that agricultural is a viable solution in our mountains.
Thanks to East Kentucky Food Systems Collaborative, an arm of Community Farm Alliance, for introducing me to some of the finest folks east of the Winchester Wall.
There’s much more plowing to do, but I have seen the light at the top of Bent Ridge mountain and the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home – a big red barn.
Time to wipe away happy tears and put the peas in the ground! Share the giggles, y’all!
Post Script. I have never written an op-ed piece in my life. But this brand, this opportunity to show the best of our mountains, moves me so much I had to tell our flatland friends in central Kentucky all about it. Here’s a link to my first op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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