Everybody that sits down and blesses a table and enjoys a meal has somebody like myself and countless other small farmers around the world to thank for that.
Sylvester “Sky” Edwards: My true passion has always been growing my own food. Being part of the Mormon faith, we’re admonished to have three years of food supply. The best way to do that and the best way to be safe about the food is know where it comes from, know who grew it and know what you have. That’s always been the key for me. People don’t know how to eat healthy, because they don’t raise stuff. They just buy whatever is available. They don’t know how to do this because there’s nobody here teaching them how to do it.
Everybody here looks at wealth in the form of gas, timber and coal — but they’re asleep at the wheel when it comes to looking at the natural wealth that has always been here and will always be here. These mountains right now are coming into maple syrup season, after that it will be spring mushrooms, after that it’ll be berries and nuts and honey. All these things you can do at different times of the year, so these mountains offer crops continuously. That little sideline business could turn into a full-fledged, small business year-round. It depends on how far you want to take it. Nobody goes up and fertilizes these trees, prunes these trees or anything. You can tap them every year until they die, and these trees live to be two or three hundred years old.
One of the great things we have is a salad mixture with no lettuce because lettuce is really low on nutritional value. We use things like Dinosaur Kale, Red Russian Kale and Blue Vates Kale. We use Arugula and Mustard and all these greens in there. They all bring a different taste and texture to that salad. So now, just a little vinegar or just a drab of something instead of saturating your salad in vinegar and oil or a salad dressing. You want to enjoy the taste of all these different types of greens. Then it feels like your meal instead of just eating a precursor to the meal.
We have a mushroom called the King Bolete. We have Chanterelles here, Oyster mushrooms, Hen-of-the-Wood, Morels — we have an abundance! We have probably thirteen or fourteen hundred mushroom species. Most people don’t even know whether they are edible or not.
We also have some of the best honey runs across the country. All the big poplar trees that bloom, that’s tulip poplar honey. We have locust, an abundance of locust blooms. Then we have honeysuckle, we have poison sumac, poison oak, and poison ivy. They make great honey. And then we have pawpaws. We have all these things that grow here, that produce flowers, that produce nectar, not to mention all the wildflowers and all the rhododendrons that grow in this state. So these mountains are great for beekeeping. Wild ginseng brings the most favorable price, all the way to China, and most of the places they get it from is right here in Appalachia, unless it’s cultivated someplace else. But most people who are here don’t see these things and don’t know how they fit in the world market. Crops grown in Appalachia can’t be got anywhere else, but Appalachia. They have a true market value, I don’t care where they are sold.
Armed with the right tools, how to identify the mushrooms, how to tap trees, how to make the syrup — once they get this information then they can do as much or as little as they want. Their entire destiny from that point lies in their hands. How many people would love to have a job where you are your own boss? You can work as many hours as you want. You don’t have to worry about being sued for overtime or anything else. What you do is a direct result of how much money you make. Nowhere will I ever tell you it’s easy. I will say that it takes a tremendous amount of work. But along with that tremendous amount of work it brings a wealth of knowledge.
As a person who goes to the grocery store to buy a meal, most people never consider the person that grew that food. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how much money you make, what your station in life is, everybody that sits down and blesses a table and enjoys a meal has somebody like myself and countless other small farmers around the world to thank for that. The days when you don’t want to be out here, this is where you’ll find us. When it’s 100 degrees, this is where you find us. West Virginia needs to own what we do. This is still a wealthy region to live in. We just have to do our work and go out, harvest it, find appropriate markets, and then work from there.
“We don’t want another non-profit. We want people making profits,” Edwards said, “We want dollars made in McDowell County to bounce around McDowell and the region.”
Sylvester “Sky” Edwards, 67, grew up on the Eastern Band Cherokee Reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains. Edwards spent most of his adult working as a stonemason in Ohio, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Washington. In 2014, going against the migration tide, he and his family moved back into the region, picking McDowell County, West Virginia as home. Edwards is one of the founding members of the Southeast Educational & Economic Development Hub, (SEEDH), a newly formed for-profit business focusing on agriculture related businesses and the aggregation of agricultural products in order to create viable markets.
McDowell County has lost more than 44 percent of its population since 1990 and is known for its struggles with a failing coal industry and generational poverty. Edwards established Creekside Farm, one of the first organic produce farms in Kimball. Together with farmer Jason Tartt, the two created McDowell County Farms, a co-op providing affordable local produce and working with organizations to educate youth about good health and alternative work. “Kids here do have options, we’re just not telling them,” said Edwards.
In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu.