When articles are written about Appalachia, the most frequently left-out words are "gardening" and "agriculture." Yet Eastern Kentucky was once self-sufficient in food production and could easily be again.
Bean and tomato varieties developed in Eastern Kentucky are known throughout the world and are grown in all 50 states and many foreign countries including England, France, Germany, Norway, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. I know this since we have sent seeds from Eastern Kentucky to all these places through our organization, the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. We have been in operation for over 12 years.
One of our board members, Frank Barnett, now of Georgetown but raised in Floyd County, has collected 52 varieties of heirloom beans in Breathitt County alone, all still being grown by gardeners there. Letcher, Harlan, Knott and other nearby counties are filled with excellent quality heirloom beans, tomatoes and other vegetables.
Many traditional gardeners in mountain counties also maintain excellent varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, cabbages and other vegetables that have been mainstays in food production and preservation in the mountains for generations.
At the same time, there has been no organized effort to focus on food production in the schools or with community organizations. Everyone knows serious gardeners but they're sort of like eccentric aunts and uncles and not to be taken seriously. It's too easy to buy processed foods at the local groceries, not to mention fast-food outlets. Gardening and cooking do take time.
Gardening skills are easily lost. All it takes is one generation and it is necessary to start over again. However, there are still hundreds of excellent gardeners working their plots in counties throughout Eastern Kentucky and they could be brought into schools and community centers to share their knowledge and skills.
Children who learn to operate electronic gizmos shortly after infancy can also learn to germinate seeds and assist young plants as they grow to maturity. Of course, plants don't grow as quickly as computers operate, but patience is also a virtue.They can learn to cook or preserve the products of school, community and personal gardens while learning the value of eating nutritious meals. They can also be made aware of and perhaps learn to avoid the problems of childhood obesity such as juvenile diabetes.
Schools that don't have green spaces of their own could rent nearby unused garden space. Students who live nearby could maintain the gardens through the summer, perhaps as summer school projects. And the season could be extended at both ends through the use of high tunnels which have come into use recently and which were originally developed at the University of Kentucky.
There is no reason why most of the fruits and vegetables sold at markets during the spring, summer and fall in Eastern Kentucky have to be brought in from other states. They can just as easily be homegrown with the money also staying at home.
Bill Best is president of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea.