In Rural Tennessee, a Food Business Could Boost an Old Railroad Town

In Rural Tennessee, a Food Business Could Boost an Old Railroad Town

Johnny Lynch, the mayor of Unicoi, Tennessee, always wanted buffalo. Four years ago, he helped the town of 3,600 in the mountainous northeast corner of the state adopt the buffalo as its municipal brand as a kind of tribute: the animal once populated the region until it, along with the native Cherokee people, was pushed out by white settlers.

Lynch decided he could bring the buffalo back — or at least, he’d get a few for his farm.

In early August, Lynch stood on a grassy hillside near his house and called out to one of his seven buffalo. “Sammy, come on!” he hollered to the bull, whose full name is Sammy Fathead. The 1,500-pound animal came charging down a path to meet Lynch at the gate of his pen, where Lynch fed him slices of apple and scratched his side.

Lynch, a 69-year old with a salt-and-pepper beard, was wearing a pale-green T-shirt with the silhouette of a buffalo on it. He and his wife have lived on this land since 1976. They both wear many hats: they operate an event space called Farmhouse Gallery & Gardens; Lynch’s wife, Pat, bakes bread in a brick oven he built and sells it at local markets. Lynch paints watercolors and operates a small blacksmith shop; he’s worked as a taxidermist and wildlife rehabilitator in the past. He built the covered bridge at the head of his driveway, and is in the process of building an indigenous-style longhouse next to his vegetable garden.

Lynch is a bit of a southern Appalachian renaissance man, the son and grandson of railroad workers. But as the mayor of Unicoi since 2004, he’s also spent much of his career trying to wean the town off its dependence on the railroad industry.

Part of that vision started to come to fruition last month as Unicoi opens the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, a business incubator where people from the region can process their foods for sale — whether it’s turning garden-picked tomatoes into salsa to take to farmers markets or preparing meals to sell out of food trucks. Along with commercial-grade equipment, the kitchen offers classes on food safety and nutritious cooking, and host a training academy for new farmers. The goal is to encourage new forms of economic activity to replace the railroad industry and re-orient this rural Appalachian region toward a more sustainable future.  

A town trying to bounce back

Trains hauled coal through Unicoi since the early 20th century on what used to be called the Clinchfield Railroad, now operated by CSX.

“The railroad is what this area was built on,” Lynch said.

The original terminal was five miles south of Unicoi in Erwin, a town where the two downtown cafes are called the Steel Rails Coffee House and the Choo Choo Cafe. Construction was completed in 2015 on an $8 million overpass in Erwin designed to ease traffic congestion caused by coal trains passing through. The day before the ribbon-cutting ceremony on the bridge, CSX announced it was ceasing operations in the county, eliminating nearly 300 jobs. The company closed the yard that afternoon, citing the declining coal industry as the culprit.

Though challenging, the situation didn’t turn out to be as dire as it could’ve been. “We’re not as bad off as we were afraid when the railroad left,” Lynch said. “People in Appalachia are pretty resilient people. We find ways of rebounding from situations like that.”

Some of the CSX employees were transferred elsewhere, and local agencies helped retrain laid-off workers or find them jobs — Northeast State Community College, for instance, offered railyard workers priority enrollment in a one-year chemistry class so they could replace retiring employees at a nuclear fuel company in Erwin. Still, Unicoi County remains in the top 10 statewide in terms of its unemployment rate: 5.9 percent as of June.

With the closure, some coal-relief money went toward a planned community kitchen in Unicoi, a project that had been in the works since the mid-2000s. It took on renewed importance when the railroad left, shaping a path forward for an area struggling with its identity. At first, Lynch thought a cannery — a licensed facility where local people could process apple butters and strawberry preserves — would be a good resource.

But as plans developed, the project became more ambitious, eventually becoming what it is today. The kitchen received money from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the federal-state partnership that has funded development projects in Appalachia since the Johnson administration. Unicoi’s grant came specifically from ARC’s POWER initiative, which aims to help “coal-impacted communities” diversify their economies.

In March, President Trump suggested eliminating the ARC in his budget proposal. In their more recent proposed budget, House Republicans seem to be trying to save the agency by slashing its funding by 14.5 percent, instead of eliminating it. The Mountain Harvest Kitchen funding is safe, but people are worried about similar projects in the future.

“You’ve got to do something to change the economies, and that’s what ARC has tried to do with the POWER grant,” said Mike Housewright, Unicoi’s city recorder. “The elimination of ARC would have a huge impact on an Appalachia that’s already struggling.”

 

Unicoi: A future food hub?

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen — just off Interstate 26, which connects northeast Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina — is a full-scale business incubator with cooking, baking and preserving equipment.

“I’m excited to death,” Lynch said. “My hope is that it’s going to be a real service to the whole region.”

He and his colleagues see the kitchen not only serving Unicoi County, but drawing in food entrepreneurs from surrounding counties and states.  

Bakers, caterers and farmers who want to process their crops started using the space Aug. 11.

Kimberly Roberts, one of Mountain Harvest’s first clients, wants to start a cupcake business. She came up with the idea after lamenting the lack of bakeries in the area.

“I can’t afford to have a kitchen of my own yet because I’m just starting out,” said Roberts, who lives in Elizabethton, about a half-hour drive from Unicoi.

She planned to rent space by the hour in the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and sell her pastries at local farmers markets. She eventually wants to launch her own food truck.

“There’s a lot of interest in using our space as a commissary for food trucks and mobile food units,” said kitchen manager Lee Manning, a food scientist who moved to Unicoi from Athens, Georgia. Her vision is for food truck businesses to expand throughout the region, but she says there’s demand even closer to home. “Even in Erwin, I’ve seen food trucks,” she said.

In the meantime, Unicoi is forging ahead with its plans. The city has committed to funding the $1.2 million kitchen for the first three years, but Manning wants it to be self-sustaining. Unicoi has spent a third of its own equipment budget — as the kitchen gains clients, and Manning gets a clearer sense of their projects, she’ll add more gear to accommodate them. “We’re looking outward to see what people want from our space,” she said.

So far, the kitchen has three types of ovens, canning equipment, a dehydrator, an industrial vegetable peeler, a blast chiller, a bread proofer, plus stand mixers and food processors. A bottling line and a label maker are in the works for people who want to make salsas or barbecue sauces.

The kitchen is a huge undertaking, but it’s just one of Lynch’s projects to bring tourism to Unicoi. The town refurbished a Revolutionary War-era cabin, where musicians perform bluegrass music weekly, and built a trailhead that leads to a path up Buffalo Mountain in the Cherokee National Forest. A new state park is also in the works.

City leaders hope the Mountain Harvest Kitchen is the tipping point, leading to new restaurants and more local food products. How it all pans out remains to be seen, but Lynch said there’s plenty of opportunity.

“The things that we’re doing, we feel, grab hold of [tourism] so we can really grab hold of that train as it goes by.”  

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