Chuck Todd spent a career in agriculture trying to kill funguses that could harm crops, but now he’s trying to figure out if a fungus can help revive Eastern Kentucky’s economy.
Todd leads an effort by a ministry in Harlan County to study the viability of creating jobs by growing mushrooms in unused buildings and old coal mines.
The experiment is happening in the historic stone bathhouse in Lynch, where miners showered before heading home in what was once the world’s largest coal-company town. U.S. Steel started building Lynch in 1917; the bathhouse was completed in 1920.
Miners used it for decades before U.S. Steel sold the houses and gave up ownership of the town nearly 60 years ago.
Meridzo Center Inc., a Christian ministry, owns the building now.
Todd directs the Meridzo Agribusiness Center, set up to find ways to create jobs through small-scale agriculture in a place where coal jobs have withered.
Todd and other volunteers are growing mushrooms in the basement of the bathhouse to figure out issues such as production techniques, the strains of mushrooms that work best and the amount of production required for a commercially viable operation.
The goal is to work out the mechanics of small-scale agricultural operations, train family farmers how to grow the products, and help set them up in business.
The ministry chose shiitake mushrooms as the first product, but plans to add others.
The next phase will involve growing small grains — again using the bathhouse — to be turned into animal feed.
“This is basically a proving ground,” Todd said. “If we are successful, then that opens a broad opportunity for many providers.”
Meridzo sees creating jobs, and hope, as part of its mission, said Lonnie Riley, who founded the non-profit nearly 20 years ago with his wife Belinda, who grew up in Lynch.
The organization also runs a coffee house, a convenience store and other programs.
“We’re just wanting to help people in practical ways to show them the Lord is interested in every part of their lives,” Lonnie Riley said.
Meridzo has financed the project so far with donations from churches, organizations and a local foundation.
On Thursday, however, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov Matt Bevin, both Republicans, announced the project would benefit from a portion of a $2.55 million grant from the federal abandoned mine land program.
Other projects covered under the grant include upgrading the Portal 31 underground exhibition mine in Lynch and building a scenic overlook on nearby Black Mountain, the state’s highest peak.
That proposal includes a 40-foot high observation tower.
“We need to tell our story and celebrate our history in Eastern Kentucky on a larger scale, and this grant will highlight the rich heritage of coal production and the beauty of our mountains in Harlan County,” Rogers said in a news release.
The bathhouse project will receive funding for additional space for the agribusiness work and to help create planned dulcimer-making and coffee-roasting operations, said Rogers, who pushed for funding of the program under which the grant was awarded.
Moving the agribusiness research to commercial reality will require partnerships and funding from public agencies and the private sector, Todd said.
However, the concept is to sell farmers the initial operations and put that money back into creating more agribusinesses, so that the process would become self-sustaining.
Once the production process and other details are worked out, Todd would like to facilitate setting up a mushroom operation in each of the eight counties in Kentucky’s Promise Zone.
The designation creates an edge in seeking federal funding for projects in Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.
“I am absolutely thrilled that we are looking at an innovative agricultural idea” that could boost jobs, said Sandi Curd, project coordinator for the zone at Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation.
The effort also fits with a regional development blueprint developed by an initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.
The blueprint includes an effort to increase agricultural production in Appalachian Kentucky to help diversify the economy.
The idea in using the old U.S. Steel bathhouse was to see if abandoned buildings and old underground mines — both in plentiful supply in Eastern Kentucky — could be used to produce crops.
Volunteers have drilled holes in about 1,000 oak logs, each about 4 feet long and 3 to 4 inches in diameter, and driven in pegs containing shiitake mushroom spores.
They water the logs when needed under the showers miners once used, and use fans to help control humidity.
The spores grow throughout the log and eventually sprout on the surface.
The logs are tagged to track production. One log can remain in production for years, Todd said.
Todd and other volunteers have worked on several prototypes of a system to hang the logs on vertical modules, meaning the production covers less floor space.
The operation could produce fresh mushrooms for restaurants and stores, but there also are opportunities to turn the mushrooms into powder to be used in health foods, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, Todd said.
“We want to foster economic growth through family farming operations and small business,” Todd said. “It’s long-term, but it’s sustainable.”
Todd is from Florida and spent a career in agriculture producing a variety of products, including citrus crops, turf and cattle.
He came to Lynch for a visit in 2015 after hearing Riley speak at a church in Florida about the work Meridzo was doing in Lynch.
His initial reaction was that it was crazy to consider developing agriculture in Eastern Kentucky, but soon felt God calling him to commit to the challenge.
“God opened my eyes to the good possibilities here,” he said. “It really is a land of promise.”