Take Me Home, (Coal) Country Roads:
the Agrarian Tour through West Virginia
One of the unofficial theme songs for us – Agrarian Road Trippers – has been John Denver’s “Country Roads”
– mainly because of the line “West Virginia. Mountain Mama. Take me
home. Country Roads.” And West Virginia – or at least the southwest
region – has her fair share of country roads. It is in the midst of
these country roads that we have visited and shared stories – as well
as a few bluegrass tunes, picked out on banjo and guitar – with fellow
agrarian minded folks in Coal Country, West Virginia.
Day Six and Day Seven:
Our main contact in Mullens, West Virginia, is the organization Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL),
where we hook up with fellow young agrarians Jack and Becky. Jack has
been working with RAIL since 2008. Originally from West Virginia, Jack
was hired to start a farmers market in Mullens – only problem being
there were no farmers. This is coal country. No one farms here. In
order to tell his story of the work he has done with RAIL, Jack first
had to share the story of coal in Mullens and her surrounding coal camps.
First off, there aren’t towns. There are coal camps – little
“villages” created by the coal companies to house miners. These houses
were built precariously upon steep mountain hillsides, with little
space betwixt neighboring houses – seldom a yard or septic tank. Today,
65% of all sewage in Wyoming county is directly pumped into the river
running through the camps. This is not to mention the additional
run-off dumped by the coal industry. This is the water – should
agriculture gain momentum – that will be used to irrigate gardens and
livestock. In 2001, Mullens suffered a drastic flood, water climbing to
ceilings on the first floor story of buildings and homes throughout the
town. Although a flood to this magnitude is not common, seasonal
flooding happens on a regular basis. For the beginning agrarian, having
your garden washed away at least once per season is quite the
However, Jack sees gardening as one step towards self-sufficiency
for the people living in communities historically tied to the coal
industry. In former times, the coal companies outlawed gardening in
coal camps – thus making coal miners and their families dependent on
purchasing food from the mercantile stores operated by the coal
companies. Although growing gardens is no longer illegal, the coal
companies still own 85% of the land in Wyoming county where Mullens is
seated. Another 5% of the land is owned by state and federal government
– leaving a mere 10% of land available to the people for housing,
parks, gardens and businesses.
“Coal is in the blood of the people,” one local woman from the organization, Friends of Milam Creek,
told us. Out of the 20,000 people in Wyoming County, only 800 are
employed in the coal industry. Employment in coal has drastically
decrease with the rise in mechanization of the industry. Although most
people living in coal country know at least one person who has died of
black lung, jobs in the coal industry are the most sought-after. A coal
miner with a high school education can make more money in a year than a
college professor with a PhD. The balance of health-versus-wealth is a
thin line to walk in the coal industry. Jobs for the remaining
individuals span mechanical labor, food service and retail. Many area
youth drift away from their communities when – and if – the opportunity
With all these thoughts muddling up my mind, we head out to the RAIL Community Garden
– to mull over thoughts and pull some weeds. In addition to locating
spaces for community residents to “farm” – there is a stigma attached
to the lesser work of gardening – RAIL provides workshops on growing
food, canning and preserving, and hosts a farmers market on RAIL’s
property. Fresh food is grown for sale at market, for donation to food
pantries, and for family consumption of those who grow it. We visited a
few more gardens before harvesting some vegetables for our own dinner.
At our last stop I noticed two bumper stickers both at the same house:
“Nader/Gonzalez” and “I ‘heart’ Coal” – an interesting combination
rarely replicated in any other community.
It doesn’t take an agrarian-minded person to connect the story of
coal country economics in Appalachia to mechanized, mono-cropped
agriculture in the Midwest. (The average age of a farmer
in America today is 57.) Disillusioned youth are encouraged to seek
educational opportunities elsewhere due to the lack of vocational
attachment to the industry of the area. To leave is to succeed. Rarely
applauded or honored are those who choose to stay. To mine. To farm.
Outside do-gooders with liberal arts educations grounded in service to
community are heralded by their own communities as heroes. But those
who choose to stay are seen as having missed their golden opportunity.
West Virginia, Mountain Mama. Country roads, take me home.
End Day Seven. End Part Three.