The words "Eastern Kentucky" might bring to mind mountains, unemployed coal miners and economic hardship, but Agriculture Commissioner James Comer would like to replace that image with tomatoes, apples and bees.
"It's not a very big agriculture region, but it can be," Comer said during an interview Friday. "I think there's a lot of opportunity there."
On Monday, Comer will unveil a regional marketing initiative that builds on the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Kentucky Proud branding efforts.
The regional brand is designed to shine a light on success stories such as that of Black Mountain Orchard, where former coal miner Terry Creech grows Honey Crisp apples atop Kentucky's highest mountain in Harlan County. There's also Don Perkins' Greenhouses, which grow hydroponic tomatoes year-round in Lee County, and Coal Country Beeworks, a project run by Eastern Kentucky University's Tammy Horn that is turning reclaimed mine sites into bee habitat.
Comer said the agriculture department hoped to build on these local successes with economic incentives designed to attract new investment in the region. He will reveal the incentives Monday with U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, and Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, in Knott County.
Compared to flat, fertile Western Kentucky, Appalachia has little agriculture today, but Eastern Kentucky was once home to hundreds of small family farms where people largely lived on the crops and livestock they raised.
That began to change dramatically during the early 1900s, when a rapid increase in mining drew many families off the farm and into coal camps. During World War II, another wave of people left farms to find work in defense and other factories in the Midwest. That was followed by a great exodus in the 1950s as people left to find work during a sharp downturn in the coal industry.
Agriculture was nearly wiped out in some Eastern Kentucky counties in the 1950s, Appalachian scholar Ron Eller said in his 2008 book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. Leslie County, for instance, lost 98 percent of its farmers in the 1950s, leaving only 20 full-time farms by 1960, he wrote.
The county recorded only $32,000 in farm cash receipts in 2010, the latest year with available figures. Many other coal counties generate less than $500,000 in sales annually, according to figures from Comer's office.
In comparison, Fayette County had more than $310 million in agricultural sales in 2010, and Graves County had almost $262 million in receipts.
Reversing that imbalance will take major educational, research and extension efforts, said Horn, the EKU beekeeper, who advocates forest-based beekeeping as economic development.
"The state needs to get serious about supporting Appalachian agriculture," Horn said. "Kentucky has lost sight that our forests are a crop. Our trees can be cropland, every bit as much as soybeans, corn and tobacco. Once we realize that as a state, we need to commit the same forms of support ... we need to support extension and provide long-term education. We have to get STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) labs in Eastern Kentucky schools. We need to have a commitment to ag research in Eastern Kentucky, including all ages."
The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development also has called for greater investment in agriculture in Appalachian Kentucky.
Community gardens, farmers markets and farm-to-school programs in the region have been growing and could become even more significant, according to the association.
"Local foods have the potential to improve both community health and boost the incomes of farmers and food entrepreneurs," it said.
Achieving that will require programs such as training to develop new farmers and affordable financing to help existing producers expand; money for facilities to help get farm products from the area to larger markets; and technical assistance in product development, marketing and food safety, the organization said.
Horn said bees were not the only answer, but they ere a great example of a niche market the region could conquer.
"I see forest-based beekeeping being one way for people in Eastern Kentucky to supplement their income," she said.
The United States consumes 400 million pounds of honey every year but produces less than 150 million pounds, according to Bee Culture, a trade journal.
Most of what we eat now is imported from China or Argentina, Horn said. And beeswax is imported from Africa because U.S. beeswax is too contaminated with pesticides for cosmetics companies to use, she said.
Kentucky's forests, because of their isolation, could become a great source for largely pesticide-free honey and wax, she said, and for healthy bee colonies, which are desperately needed today.
If coal companies incorporate wild flowers into pasture and grass mixes, and plant high-pollen trees such as tulip poplar, witch hazel and sourwood, Horn said, "there's no reason Appalachia can't become a sleeping giant. ... These are all industries — small ones, but industries — that I think Appalachia can become leaders in."