HIPPO — Todd Howard used to work for coal companies that moved massive amounts of earth, but now he turns just a few inches of dirt to sow plants and seeds.
Howard, 34, a farmer in Floyd County, is involved in the growing effort to expand agriculture and local food systems in Eastern Kentucky.
Howard started small, selling a few hundred dollars' worth of sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers market in 2010. Last year he and others sold $50,000 worth of goods at the market, which Howard helps direct.
Farm advocates and researchers say there is real potential for increased agricultural production in Eastern Kentucky to help diversify the economy — an issue that has gained increased urgency with a sharp drop in coal jobs since 2012.
But realizing that potential would come with a lot of needs, including training, affordable financing for farmers and businesses, marketing assistance, and infrastructure such as processing facilities.
"There's a lot of steps that have to happen," said Howard, who operates HF Farms.
Small-scale agriculture was once commonplace in Eastern Kentucky, with families raising the crops and livestock that provided most of their food, but that lifestyle withered away generations ago.
The boom in coal production beginning in the early part of the 20th century drew thousands of people away from their small hillside farms and into coal camps.
During World War II, many left the region for military service or to work at defense plants. Another massive out-migration followed in the 1950s as people left to find work because of a deep slump in coal jobs.
By the end of the decade, there were counties where agriculture had nearly disappeared, former University of Kentucky professor Ron Eller wrote in his 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.
That legacy is apparent even today. Several Eastern Kentucky counties recorded less than $100,000 in the market value of agricultural products sold in 2012, compared with $100 million or more in several counties in Central and Western Kentucky.
But interest in locally produced, healthy food creates room for agriculture to grow in Eastern Kentucky these days, advocates say.
Increasingly, people want to know where their food comes from, said Daniel Wilson, UK's Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture in Wolfe County.
"I just think that there's a huge market for that," Wilson said.
That interest has helped boost the growth of farmers markets in Eastern Kentucky.
For instance, sales at eight markets in the region that the Community Farm Alliance works with grew from $1,100 in 2011 to $186,800 in 2013, said Martin Richards, the alliance's executive director.
Studies have shown that money from farmers markets stays in the community and helps create jobs, Richards said.
Opening markets in seven Eastern Kentucky counties that don't have them could put nearly $500,000 in additional income into local economies, Richards added.
"We've been saying for 25 years that agriculture is economic development," he said.
One issue now is that demand for locally grown food has outstripped the supply, creating a need for more farmers, Richards said.
Several organizations have programs to promote agriculture and to recruit and support farmers in the region.
Grow Appalachia, for instance, helps beginning farmers, providing training, seeds and fertilizer, and even tilling their ground. The farmers provide the labor and agree to attend workshops on topics such as healthy cooking and preserving food.
The goal is to help as many people grow as much food as possible. In addition to growing for themselves last year, participants sold at least $60,000 worth of food, said the director, David Cooke.
"There's a lot of ways money can be made through small-scale agriculture," he said.
A sharp downturn in the coal industry also is driving the interest in expanded food production as an avenue to boost the economy of Eastern Kentucky. Half the coal jobs in the region have disappeared since early 2012.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers started an initiative last year, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, with the goal of coming up with plans to diversify and improve the Eastern Kentucky economy.
Agriculture is a key focus. Wilson heads a committee that is soliciting ideas on expanding the region's agriculture economy.
There is potential to do that with everything from fruits and vegetables to cattle, trees, bees and agritourism, according to researchers and people who have submitted ideas to the SOAR agriculture committee.
The region does not have vast, relatively flat fields like those that farmers in other parts of the state use for corn, soybeans, cattle and other products. But it does have thousands of acres of land left flat by mountaintop mining that could be used, noted David Ditsch, who heads UK's agricultural research station in Breathitt County.
There is good potential for increased livestock production on that land, for instance, said Ditsch.
Mined land also can be planted in trees, which has not only economic but ecological benefits.
Other opportunities include food sales to restaurants and large institutional customers such as schools, hospitals and state parks, and value-added agriculture, which means processing fruits, vegetables and other commodities into finished products that sell for more — turning tomatoes into pasta sauce, for instance.
The Community Farm Alliance this year hired a coordinator to help develop sales from local farmers to schools and other institutions, and the Department of Agriculture has programs designed to link farmers with schools and colleges.
Tina Garland, who heads the department's Farm to School program, said there is a lot of room for growth.
"If the producers want to grow it, there's a market for it," she said.
Advocates said agriculture is likely to be diversified as it expands in Eastern Kentucky, with most producers remaining relatively small. There just isn't land available for the kinds of large farm operations typical in other parts of the state.
Many producers won't make a lot of money, but the extra income will have an impact, said Valerie Horn, who works in Letcher County with several groups promoting local food production.
"It can be enough that it keeps you from having to leave," Horn said.
If the opportunity to expand agriculture is significant in Eastern Kentucky, so are the hurdles.
Producing more value-added products, for instance, would require having more commercial processing facilities, and farmers would need access to infrastructure such as commercial coolers to reach some markets.
Market development is another challenge, said Howard, the Floyd County farmer.
"We have to develop every sale that we get. I can't just farm," he said.
Eastern Kentucky food production could benefit from increased education for local consumers on the value of locally produced food, said David Fisher, a Letcher County farmer who sells produce through his family-run shop in Whitesburg called Railroad Street Mercantile.
Fisher also said having a system to help market the region's products to customers elsewhere — perhaps even to aggregate products from a number of producers and deliver them — would free farmers to concentrate on production.
"Every minute I'm not in my garden, my product's suffering," he said.
Access to land is another issue. Coal and land-holding companies own much of the land in Eastern Kentucky.
Cathy Rehmeyer, who grows vegetables in raised beds on a tenth of an acre in Pikeville, said she would like to expand her production but has looked unsuccessfully for eight years for available, affordable land.
Rehmeyer said it would benefit agriculture in the region if more producers could get long-term access to coal-company land.
Counties in Eastern Kentucky also face varying conditions as they try to boost agriculture, which makes the effort more complex.
Some counties with significant coal production haven't had much farming for decades; others where coal did not dominate have faced the decline of tobacco.
"There's not going to be one single solution and one single answer that's going to solve every problem," said Aleta Botts, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.
Howard said he thought the outlook for agriculture in Eastern Kentucky was bright, but making it a bigger piece of the economy would require patience.
"Slow and steady is what's going to move Eastern Kentucky forward," he said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.