HINDMAN — Tina and Tony Edwards were quick to sign up for a new program aimed at boosting sales of farm products produced in Eastern Kentucky.
The two grow vegetables on their hilly, 35-acre farm in Breathitt County to sell at farmers markets, and she has a small business called Taste of Country Candles that makes soy candles.
The Edwardses were among the vendors who showed products at an event Monday where state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced the marketing initiative, called Appalachia Proud: Mountains of Potential.
The focus on marketing Eastern Kentucky agriculture could help producers, Tony Edwards said.
"If I could get my produce into the schools, that would be fantastic for me," he said.
That's part of the goal of Appalachia Proud.
Comer announced the program, a companion to the state's successful Kentucky Proud marketing brand, in Knott County with Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and state Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson.
The idea is to highlight and expand Eastern Kentucky agricultural products and agritourism.
"We believe when you look at economic development and ways to diversify the economy here in Eastern Kentucky, agriculture should be front and center," Comer said. "We import just about all of our food in this part of the state, and it doesn't have to be that way."
In addition to marketing, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture will work with universities to develop niche products such as ginseng and honey that small farmers could produce, and will try to get more schools, colleges and universities in the region to use locally grown foods in their cafeterias.
The initiative also looks to the future. Comer said he had commissioned construction of a mobile agriculture classroom to use in Eastern Kentucky and wanted to set up a chapter of Future Farmers of America in every high school in the region to get more young people interested in the field.
At the event Monday, David Ledford, president of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, said the organization planned to raise money from private sources to build a conservation and education center on land in southeastern Kentucky that has been surface-mined and reclaimed.
The announcement was part of the Appalachia Proud event because the center would provide a place to sell locally grown food. Comer's department has allowed the planned center to use the brand it has trademarked; it would be called the Appalachia Proud Wildlife Center.
The center would include elk- and bird-watching, wildlife conservation education, agriculture research, astronomy and other programs, according to the foundation's website. Ledford said that a similar center in Pennsylvania drew more than 350,000 visitors last year and that he saw more potential for the proposed Kentucky center.
The foundation is evaluating potential sites for the center in Knott, Perry, Martin, Breathitt and Bell counties, according to its website. Comer said his department would try to help raise private money for the center.
As in many things, money is an issue in the effort to expand agriculture in Eastern Kentucky.
Edwards, for instance, said a regional processing facility could help boost vegetable production.
The plan Comer released Monday included information on Paul's proposal to create "economic freedom zones" in struggling areas around the country, including Eastern Kentucky.
The proposal includes tax cuts for people in businesses in the zones; less stringent regulations, including environmental rules; and other provisions that include school choice and an education tax credit for parents or guardians.
Paul said at the Appalachia Proud event that the plan would leave more than $1 billion in Kentucky that otherwise would flow out in taxes.
"We think that this kind of stimulus is a different kind of idea than we've tried," he said.
Comer said he favored returning 100 percent of the state severance tax on mined coal to the counties where the coal originated, with 15 percent of it set aside to support agricultural projects.
However, lawmakers have not approved Paul's proposal or a change in how Kentucky's severance tax is spent, and it seems unlikely that either proposal will advance any time soon.
Comer said it was obvious that "everything flows better when it's adequately funded" but said the regional marketing effort and other pieces of the Appalachia Proud initiative could succeed even if state legislators balked at giving coal counties 100 percent of severance money and Congress did not approve economic freedom zones.
"We still can accomplish it without the funding," Comer said.
He noted that counties already get some coal-severance money and said he would advocate for them to use some of it to develop agriculture projects.
The focus on marketing Eastern Kentucky food, farm products and agritourism comes as the region searches for ways to revive its economy in the face of a sudden, sharp decline in coal.
Coal mines and facilities have cut their work forces in Eastern Kentucky by nearly half during the past two years. The cuts have reverberated through the economy.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Somerset, last year started an initiative aimed at coming up with ideas to diversify and improve the region's economy.
The effort is called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. A December meeting of more than 1,500 — Comer, McConnell and Paul did not attend — generated hundreds of ideas, and Beshear has asked the legislature to approve funding for more meetings, economic studies and other work.
Comer said he would share his Appalachia Proud report with Beshear and Rogers, and hoped efforts to promote agriculture would be incorporated in any plan to diversify and boost the region's economy.
McConnell said that Eastern Kentucky needed to broaden its economy, but that coal production must remain a part of its future.
"We can defend coal, push back against the war on coal, and yet plan for a more diversified Eastern Kentucky at the same time," he said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.