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Tradition so Rich, so Fragile, so Sweet

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A hand-painted sign at the mouth of Tenney’s driveway welcomes guests during sorghum season. Photo by Mike Costello.

Gone from most kitchen pantries, sorghum keeps connections strong in some rural communities.

Just a few miles down a narrow, winding road from Buckhannon, the seat of Upshur County, West Virginia, a carved wooden sign welcomes visitors to Tallmansville. At first glance, there’s not much to the rural village of around 400 residents, but I’ve spent enough time in these hills to know what little first glance says about a place.

The weathered, gray sign is curiously positioned, on an exposed hilltop just before the road slopes downward into a hardwood forest one might expect to see when leaving town, not upon arrival. Before long, the grade flattens and the tree cover clears, giving way to a brief straight stretch through a slightly open valley. I pass a white church tucked away on the left, a handful of homes and the volunteer fire department on the right. Then, I notice a small structure adorned by mounted steel type that reads “Tallmansville, West Virginia 26237.”

“You’ll see it when you get to the Tallmansville post office,” I recalled from directions relayed to me over the phone.

The plain brick postal building stands alone, under a towering flagpole, between Tallmansville Road and a meadow bisected by the trickling waters of Grassy Run. I immediately see part of what I’d come looking for: patches of tall leafy stalks whose tops have bronzed with autumn’s arrival.

To a passerby, the fields on Donnie Tenney’s farm look identical to the ubiquitous plots of late-season corn grown on roadside farms throughout West Virginia. But a closer look reveals a plant that’s strikingly similar, yet more slender, taller, and, most notably, free of ears containing kernels, silks or husks. This is sorghum cane, the raw matter responsible for one of Appalachia’s most storied pantry staples.

It’s a cool late-September afternoon when I first arrive in Tallmansville. Tenney and his wife, Lorelei, are in the field stripping long, narrow leaves off the towering sorghum stalks by hand. Neighbors, friends and relatives have stopped by to help. At one point, nearly a dozen people are on site, some hidden deep in the cane thicket, detectable only by a steady, audible cadence of leaves being snapped and pulled, then tossed to the ground.

A former Upshur County Commissioner, Tenney converses among guests with a sharp sense of humor and a friendly swagger one might expect from a small town politician. There’s plenty of jovial conversation, yet everyone is hard at work, each playing a vital role in a local pastime that’s always been a communal endeavor.

The sorghum stalks must be stripped completely of their leaves before harvesting. Tenney’s friend and neighbor, Gene Hornbeck, reaches to bundle fully stripped canes, making it easier to harvest several plants at once, by cutting the plants at the base. Photo by Mike Costello.

Throughout the day, piles of dark green leaves accumulate between rows. The barren stalks are finally severed from their bases a few inches from the ground, then carried to a tow-behind utility trailer. There, Tenney’s sister, Bonnie Kelley, and his mother-in-law, Liz Villegas, stack them neatly in preparation for the last steps in making sorghum syrup, a viscous, dark amber substance with a strong history in Appalachian kitchens.

“I remember when I was a kid, this was the highlight of the fall,” said Tenney, invoking memories of sorghum gatherings decades ago. In addition to harvesting cane, responsibilities at the time might entail leading work horses around the mill, cutting firewood for boiling, or roasting chickens for dinner after a long day’s work. “Everybody got together. People came in just like they do here.”

Though sorghum isn’t new to me or my cupboard, this is my initiation to its harvest. As a cook, I’m drawn to ingredients with depth and complexity. Sorghum syrup—sometimes referred to as sorghum molasses or simply molasses, despite a clear distinction from the sugarcane-based common molasses—certainly has that going for it. Its taste can be described as mostly sweet, slightly sour, with bitter, sometimes even smoky, notes. Its versatile flavor profile makes it perfectly suited for use in sweet and savory dishes alike, but sorghum’s complexity extends far beyond an interplay of tastes.

At one time, long after the first seed varieties were imported on slave ships from Africa, West Virginia sorghum operations were a dime a dozen. Sorghum syrup was a product born of necessity, from a time when sugar was prohibitively expensive. First triggered when the Civil War crippled the deep south’s sugar industry, sorghum gained prominence as an easily accessible sweetener. A nationwide sorghum boom extended through the Great Depression, even longer in isolated rural areas. By the mid-20th century, as the cost of sugar fell, and homesteading tradition bearers passed on, sorghum production in the Mountain State largely fizzled out.

I’ve often lamented that, despite the historical significance of sorghum in West Virginia, my own use has generally been limited to products from Kentucky and Tennessee, where its use is more common, and production occurs on a far greater scale. I knew of a small sorghum festival in Calhoun County, and occasionally read about non-commercial hobby operations scattered about. But I’d yet to notice a single jar of West Virginia sorghum on the shelves of local food retailers. This all changed last spring, when I was tipped off about two farmers producing, and selling, sorghum syrup in Upshur County.

Photo by Mike Costello.

In late spring I finally met Charlie Radabaugh. A lifelong farmer whose rugged hands alone tell the story of his hardscrabble work ethic, Radabaugh never drifted from his agrarian roots. Decades ago, he found steady work making ceramic fire bricks in a Buckhannon factory, but remained tied to his family’s pastoral homeplace. He eventually retired there, where he follows in his parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps, producing vegetables, maple syrup and, of course, sorghum.

Our first encounter came at the farmers market in Bridgeport, where this year Radabaugh began making the hour-plus drive to sell his goods each Sunday from May through October. We met on the third market week of the season. Over the previous two weeks, he’d all but struck out seeking customers who knew what sorghum was, much less who wanted to buy it.

Radabaugh was baffled to have met someone familiar with the contents of the pint-sized tan jugs arranged neatly beside his modest display of early-season produce. It helped when he found out I was looking to buy more sorghum than it seemed he might sell all summer. The feeling was mutual, though. I was ecstatic to cross paths with the local sorghum producer who, until that moment, existed only as a figment of my wishful imagination.

We talked at length as he shared photos of the boiling process and told me of the mill on Tenney’s farm. He asked how I put sorghum to use, so I described some of my favorite recipes: a glaze for charred venison, a dressing for a wilted greens salad, desserts galore.

“You just put sorghum on everything,” Radabaugh joked. “But, you know, not many people here know what this stuff is.”

What Radabaugh said is generally true, but not just in Bridgeport. Perhaps in one of the state’s few enclaves of affluence—a place relatively unexposed to the insolvent, seclusive conditions that extended sorghum’s importance in a place like Tallmansville—unfamiliarity with sorghum shouldn’t come as a surprise. But, by and large, in West Virginia’s rural, urban, wealthy and distressed communities alike, sorghum’s glory days have come and gone.

Since I like to delve into the stories behind heritage-rich ingredients on my menus, I asked if I could visit in the fall, when processing season arrives. Without hesitation, Radabaugh urged me to do so. We’d keep in touch about it for months, all the way through mid-September, when he called to give me directions to Tenney’s farm.

Radabaugh and Tenney are longtime close friends. During sorghum season, they’re also business partners. Each grows several plots of cane, all of which is processed through an antique cast iron mill Tenney inherited from his father. Multiple growers, one central mill, all hands on deck. That’s how sorghum was typically produced in Appalachian farm communities, and it’s no different in Tallmansville today.

An iron sorghum mill, Donnie Tenney inherited from his father, crushes whole canes with drum-like vertical cylinders before depositing the plants’ fibrous remains. Photo by Mike Costello.

“It seems like just about every community had somebody that had a mill,” Tenney says. “A lot of times different people would plant it and bring it into one place, and they’d all work together.”

Just before evening, Radabaugh, who’s been at Tenney’s farm since early morning, drives a bright red pickup truck, hauling the trailer of stripped canes, to the processing site. Beside a dark wooden shed, he unloads them onto a long, narrow table where Villegas sits, ready to lead the milling process traditionally known as “squeezing”.

Charlie Radabaugh reaches for recently harvested sorghum canes, which will soon be milled in a process traditionally known as “squeezing.” Photo by Mike Costello.

Once everything is in place, Tenney starts the engine of his green John Deere tractor. A sturdy canvas belt connecting the tractor’s back wheel to the mill sets a series of gears and cogs into motion. Villegas picks up the canes from the pile, one-by-one. She moves them horizontally, from right to left, across her lap, feeding them through a boxed-off iron contraption that’s maybe two feet wide, just over a foot tall, elevated a couple feet off the ground. The mill’s robust vertical cylinders operate almost like those of an old wringer washing machine. They turn inward, crushing the cane before slowly spitting out the plants’ ribbon-like fibrous remains out the other side, onto a rapidly growing pile.

The fresh sap, a bright green liquid, trickles into a bucket under the mill before being transferred to a shallow, metal evaporator under the shed’s awning. Here, late-arriving company continues to gather. Among the guests is Delmuth Kelley, a neighbor, who, like several in attendance, comes from just up the road.

With an enthusiastic tone, Kelley describes frugal contraptions his father built long ago—a tractor system to mechanize the previously horse-powered milling process, a wood-fired evaporator so powerful it took six people just to skim the ash from the syrup as it rapidly cooked down.

“When he boiled it, he boiled it hard,” Kelley exclaims. “A real big rolling boil!”

Liz Villegas and Lorelei Tenney work to skim a light foam from the surface of the sorghum juice as it slowly boils, reducing into a thick, amber syrup. Photo by Mike Costello.

Kelley talks about his parents’ use of sorghum during the Depression and both World Wars. He recalls farm families like his own raising meat, vegetables and grains, then collaborating with others to produce sorghum, since, as he says, “they’d need sugar every now and then.” As he recounts memories of hardship, thrift and ingenuity, the conversation returns to the way the sorghum syrup’s labor-intensive process has always been a symbol of cohesion among area residents.

“It was a family thing,” he says, pausing briefly as Tenney’s tractor growls behind him. “Well actually it was a little more than family, it was kind of a community thing, because, you know, years ago they didn’t have this thing where’d they’d just send messages by moving their thumbs.”

Put simply, before the age of iPhones and emails, more people talked to each other face to face. Spread out over hollows and ridgetops, they did so to get by. And while modern conveniences may have brought about greater ease to certain aspects of life, personal interaction, even in places like rural Upshur County, has diminished as a result.

“It was a big deal. When somebody was making molasses, the community came together,” Kelley says. “It was just like the Sunday school picnic.”

After the boiling process, Lorelei Tenney pours fresh sorghum syrup into pint-size jugs. Photo by Mike Costello.

I know exactly what he means. I’m no man of God, but I’ve been to my fair share of Sunday school picnics. I’ve experienced a comfort derived not from prayer, fried chicken or half-runner casseroles, but rather an intermittent reprieve from everyday rural isolation. I appreciate what my ancestors gleaned weekly over rhubarb pie at a whitewashed chapel in the woods of Braxton County, an unspoken reminder that when, not if, neighbors must pull together for celebration, grieving or mere survival, they undoubtedly will.

“Today the Sunday school picnic doesn’t mean much, because just a few attend,” Kelley says, his voice tinged with subtle lament. “But years ago, that was a big day.”

I, too, long for a familiar sense of community, a trademark of the mountains that seems to have slightly eroded in recent years—a trend I attribute to several factors, including divisive election cycles and the rise of media-driven us vs. them narratives surrounding Coal Country or Trump Country, USA. It’s something I grew to appreciate as a youngster on a small farm, in a disaster-prone town on the banks of the Elk River. There, the need for apolitical coalescence never ends. (Last year, the town of Elkview, along with nearby Clendenin, was hit with widespread property loss, permanent destruction of my alma mater, Herbert Hoover High School, and deaths of several residents in the infamous flood of June 23, 2016.) When Kelley, Tenney and Radabaugh speak of maintaining, building and losing community, I understand. Though I sometimes feel my own sentiments teetering on the verge of cliché—“Appalachians may not have much, but at least they have community,” I can almost imagine hearing in the latest national newscast reporting the region’s peril—shrugging off a togetherness that shaped my affinity for place would be dishonest at best.

Of course, it’s merely idealistic to think rural locales are, or ever were, immune from internal strife. But at a time of polarizing discourse, I’m reminded of my reverence for foodways as means to preserve what sense of community remains. I hold close the idea that finding time to gather, especially in the field or around the dinner table, safeguards the unique bond between mountain neighbors who, despite stark differences, will in some way always rely on each other to subsist. In my years in the kitchen and a decade working in the public policy arena, I’ve witnessed communal acts of making and enjoying food transcend political demarcation. Food is, indeed, no social panacea—as a mark of culture and class, what we eat can be polarizing in its own regard—but I’ve rarely left a hog roast, cider pressing or ramp supper contemplating ideological division over common threads in a cloth from which we’ve all been cut.

As Kelley heads back to the field to strip more leaves and harvest more cane before nightfall, cookbooks with sorghum recipes are passed around. Early 20th century newspaper ads, shown on screens of modern smartphones, depict mills similar to the machine turning steadily just a few feet away. The conversation is one about sorghum’s value, but not in terms of culinary use or monetary considerations. To those at Tenney’s farm, the sweet sticky syrup reducing before them represents a century’s worth of history, heritage and fellowship.

“It all kind of weaves together. It’s interesting, at one time, you know 75 or 100 years ago, you had a community that was tight-knit,” Tenney says. “There’s a social aspect of it that’s missing today.”

A plot of mature sorghum cane, grown on land owned by Donnie Tenney’s family for over two centuries, is ready for autumn harvest. Photo by Mike Costello.

As long as the cane grows behind the post office and the mill turns beside the shed, sorghum’s social value will live on, at least in Tallmansville. Tenney and Radabaugh have no plans to cease production anytime soon, but as they age, both know the future is not guaranteed. They’ve seen family sorghum boils and Sunday school picnics come and go. They understand the inescapable fragility of tradition.

“We want to carry the tradition on to our kids and our grandkids so they can understand what Appalachian heritage is all about,” Tenney says, Radabaugh nodding slowly in agreement.

As for the future of his own mill, Tenney says with a chuckle, “Well, my mother died when she was 100, so that means I have 32 years left to make sorghum.”

Radabaugh responds, looking towards Tenney with shrugged shoulders, raised eyebrows and a wide grin, “We’ll just keep on working until we’re too old to do it.”

Nearly two weeks later, when I return to Tallmansville, a hand-painted sign reading “Welcome, Cane Boiling TODAY” sits at the mouth of Tenney’s driveway for the final time this year. Only a small pile of canes sits on the table near the shed. Villegas makes quick work of them, and before long, the mill sees its last turn of the season.

After hours of heating by gas burners’ intense blue flames, the syrup in the evaporator maintains a slow, steady boil. Hanging fluorescent lamps illuminate the space under the shed’s awning as dusk turns to dark. A bubbly foam is scraped from the steaming liquid surface, and the syrup drips from handheld skimmers at a markedly slow pace. It’s a sign. 2017’s final batch of sorghum syrup is ready for bottling.

Donnie Tenney (far left) and his wife, Lorelei (far right), work with friends and neighbors to bottle sorghum syrup from a gas-heated steel evaporator at Tenney’s farm in Tallmansville, W. Va. Photo by Mike Costello.

In assembly line fashion, several dozen pint and quart-size jugs are lined up and filled from a spout attached to the evaporator. They’re momentarily set aside, then capped with black plastic lids. When the bottling is finished, a thin layer of syrup covers the bottom of the evaporator. Lorelei brings out a plate of yeast rolls from the kitchen, passing them out to those gathered around — eight of us in total. I go after the prized scrapings with a spoon grasped firmly in my right hand, smearing the soft, light bread held gently in my left.

We continue to dredge the evaporator, like the giddiest of children, scraping cake batter from a mixing bowl in my grandmother’s kitchen. With processing finally done for the year, we drift back into a conversation initiated weeks earlier, one about sorghum’s future, the outlook for farming and for the region as a whole.

Radabaugh and Tenney express hope for a younger generation of chefs and farmers to pick up interest in sorghum, their optimism bolstered by a recent encounter with celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who, during a visit to West Virginia, told them Appalachian sorghum might soon be trending nationwide.

“I want it to expand. I hope it keeps on growing,” Radabaugh says. “Nobody knows what the jobs situation is going to be in this part of West Virginia. If there are some people that could continue this on and maybe make a living, you know, I think it’s wide open.”

With his pitchfork in hand, Charlie Radabaugh prepares the crushed sorghum fibers for transportation to a compost heap on Donnie Tenney’s farm. Photo by Mike Costello.

I’m a firm believer in small-scale agriculture’s potential to help shape the region’s transition away from dwindling extractive industries, but I’m keenly aware of the harsh realities associated with farming. Will sorghum production be part of West Virginia’s economic future? I’m not certain, but I share Radabaugh and Tenney’s desires.

I hope sorghum takes off once more. I hope this time-honored ingredient again sees widespread use in both home and professional kitchens throughout the Mountain State. I hope young farmers step up so Radabaugh and Tenney can one day walk away on their own terms, knowing sorghum still keeps communities like Tallmansville stronger than first glance reveals.

Mostly, though, I hope future generations will tap into their shared food heritage as one way to rise above divisive times and maintain community, whether at sorghum boils, Sunday school picnics or any other occasion that allows neighbors to seek common ground while breaking bread. If such proverbial crumb ends up smeared with a spoonful of that sweet, slightly bitter syrup once so common in the mountains, a couple farmers I know surely won’t complain.

Contributing editor Mike Costello ( @costellowv ‏ ) is a chef, farmer and storyteller at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.

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Appalachia

How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia

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This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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Appalachia

A Regional Focus on Health Care, Community by Community

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Understanding Appalachia requires coming to grips with the complexities and challenges of rural healthcare.

It means understanding that addiction isn’t just an opioid issue, as methamphetamines make a comeback in our communities. It means understanding that health goals reflect a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs chart from one community to the next, and that how we define wellness is as diverse and place-based as other forms of Appalachian culture. It means understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in the creative ways that our communities tackle addiction, vaccines, mental health, access and affordability.

With support from Jim and Alexis Pugh, we hired a part-time editor/reporter for developing this beat. We’d like to introduce him to our readers and invite story pitches for tackling this topic together.

— 100 Days in Appalachia

Introduce yourself to the 100 Days audience. How does your background inform your perspective on health and health care issues in Appalachia?

I’ve been covering rural health throughout the Southeast for some years now. Appalachian born, in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I began writing about health care on a regular basis in 2008 with a series of articles on the breakdown of the mental health care system in North Carolina. I then began to more fully appreciate the complexity of health care issues and the range of repercussions of the decisions we make societally about health care.

I worked for a couple of years under a grant to cover rural health issues in North Carolina, and that job allowed me to spend a lot of time on two-lane roads – those roads William Least Heat-Moon coined the “blue highways” for the color in which they appeared on old Rand McNally maps. I’ve since been doing the same work as a freelancer, from the Finger Lakes region of New York to the Mexico border. I love driving those roads, realizing that I’m now somewhere I’ve never been before, then arriving at my destination and exploring how the issues this particular community is grappling with are the same and different as others elsewhere.

I’m looking forward to now returning my focus to Appalachia. I divide my time between Nashville, Tennessee, and Carrboro, North Carolina. I make the trek between those two cities every couple of weeks, and whenever I’m headed west and begin the climb up Old Fort Mountain or headed east and hit Pigeon River Gorge, I feel the tug. It’s less than a hundred-mile stretch, but it’s so distinctly Appalachia.

With 100 Days, I’m psyched to reorient along a roughly north-south axis, unfolding this region that ambles from Schoharie County, New York, to Kemper County Mississippi. Granted, much of this work will be done from my desk in Nashville or Carrboro. But I’ll always be looking forward to that next excursion.

Of course, not all of Appalachia is rural. I do enjoy Appalachia’s metropolitan areas, love discovering them anew, and look forward to further delving into their particular health care issues and successes.

Urban or rural, I’m intrigued by the role that place plays in the health care issues communities face and in their outcomes. I’m so looking forward to witnessing Appalachia.

When people see that we’re launching a health vertical, it might seem like we’re late to the game, that any number of outlets already have a strongly established focus on issues in this area. In what ways do you hope to lead the conversation about health in Appalachia?

Appalachia is facing some considerable health care challenges. In addition to the rising costs of care, rural communities are experiencing diminishing access to services, including hospital closures, and difficulties in recruiting health care professionals. Rural and urban communities alike have been particularly hard hit by opioids.

But Appalachia isn’t a monolithic region, and there are nuances to these issues from one sub-region to the next, from community to community. While underscoring shared concerns, I intend to draw out those distinctions. I most especially want to bring attention to the particular ways in which communities are finding solutions

When I write that I’m from Western North Carolina, I capitalize the “W,” as those in the region commonly do – because beyond identifying the region geographically, “Western” is an integral part of a proper noun, denoting cultural distinctions. I could ramble on about what those distinctions are – the libertarian instinct, etc. My point is that place matters. Murphy, North Carolina, in the far southwestern corner of WNC, is 355 miles from Raleigh, the state capital.

There are four other state capitals closer to Murphy. To assume that all North Carolinians share a sense of place, an identity, would be a mistake. I want to explore the contours of geography and culture, and how they shape health, health care, attitudes, practice and policies.  

I intend to report on the challenges individual communities are facing and their responses to those challenges, and on decisions that the federal and state governments make and the outcomes of those decisions – whether to expand Medicaid coverage, for example, and the implications of that decision.  

Are there any specific topics you think media outlets outside of the region do a bad job of covering here or that have perpetuated stereotypes of the people in Appalachia? In what ways do you hope to challenge those views?

I think there’s a perception that Appalachia is waiting for a handout, that people in the region are expecting the federal government to solve all their problems. I hope to help counter that narrative.

The first piece I wrote for 100 Days was titled “New Report Cites Economic Woes, Addiction and Optimism in Appalachia.” It was about the results of a survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health titled “Life in Rural America.” Those results underscored the loss of jobs and the scourge of addiction. But the researchers also found that rural Americans are largely optimistic about their future, placing their faith in a shared sense of community. I described how that sense of community is expressed in Moorefield, West Virginia.

I strive to take a solutions-oriented approach to my work. I’ve written about the closures, mergers and acquisitions of hospitals and the ripple effects they have on communities. That’s certainly an issue today in Appalachia. In reporting on these transactions, I’ve described how communities have responded – at times, rebelled.

I intend to tell the stories of ground-level, multi-fronted responses to the health care challenges Appalachian communities are experiencing.

The focus outside, and inside, the region, in terms of covering health in Appalachia, is largely focused on the opioid epidemic. In what ways do you hope to shine a new light or further the conversation around this topic?

I refer to my answer to the previous question: solutions. Whenever possible, I intend to report on solutions.

Recently, I attended a listening session hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission in the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The objective was to discuss workforce issues related to the opioid epidemic. Participants brainstormed job-placement strategies and how communities can engage substance-abuse treatment programs, recovery initiatives and other services. They shared information on available resources in the community. People had driven up to three hours to attend – health care professionals, business owners, social workers, elected officials, academics, law-enforcement officers and plain-old concerned citizens. It was an impressive display of solution-oriented community resolve.

I’ve reported on naloxone initiatives, needle-exchange programs, law-enforcement assisted diversion programs and health care professionals assisting mother and child in alleviating the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome, addressing the stigma attached to medical-assisted treatment. I’ve ridden along with a peer support specialist who helps former inmates in recovery and others who assist those exiting the criminal justice system.

I intend to remain attentive to programs focused on the treatment, care and recovery of those with substance-use disorders and on the prevention of addiction, but with an eye toward how we are solving these problems in our communities.

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Distress Grows For Ohio Valley Farmers As Trade Deals Stall

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Barry Alexander with a handful of yellow soybeans. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

West Kentucky Farmer Barry Alexander doesn’t have an answer on when the Trump administration will reach a trade deal with China, now a year into tariffs that have hamstrung some Ohio Valley industries.

Listen to the story from the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Alexander is optimistic these continued negotiations will be worth it, but his plan in the meantime lies in massive, silver storage bins on Cundiff Farms, the 13,000-acre operation he manages.

He pulls a lever, and out tumbles a downpour of pale yellow soybeans.

Video: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These beans have been in here since Halloween day,” Alexander said. “The large bin on the right, that’s 350,000 bushels. The next-size bins down, that’s 180,000 bushels. To give reference, a thousand bushels is one semi-truck load.”

He’s been trying to hold onto about half of his soybean and corn bushels, waiting to see if he can sell for a better price before he’s forced to start planting again in early April.

Crop prices have crashed partly because of Chinese tariffs, and the losses have put a strain on some farmers he knows.

Barry Alexander, a lifelong west Kentucky farmer, in his small office. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There are farmers that have decided to retire because they didn’t want to work through these things now. We’re to that point,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he’s survived in part because his sprawling farm has resources to work with: eight full-time employees, two new $550,000 combines he traded up for, and the storage bins to help ride out bad crop prices.

“Our large structures are not cheap, but financially for our farming operation, they’re a necessity for us to do what we do,” Alexander said.

Farmers like Alexander are coping with losses from tariffs and a continuing trade war, and it’s not clear when it will end. A March 1 deadline for negotiations with China was delayed indefinitely by President Trump, and an agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump signed in November has yet to be ratified by Congress. The retaliatory tariffs on U.S. crops and dairy remain, compounding problems caused by overproduction and low crop prices, and small farmers are suffering the most.

Massive, steel storage bins, half-full with grain, on Cundiff Farms in west Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Size Matters

“If you look at all the large farmers, these guys have the storage facilities to wait out bad prices,” Kent State University-Tuscarawas Agribusiness Professor Sankalp Sharma said. “For a lot of these small guys…they couldn’t actually store their commodity, they still had to deal with those lower prices.”

Sharma and others argue grain prices have been low for five years because farmers are overproducing, and tariffs are only making the situation worse.

“The United States soybean harvest this year in general was just crazy. There was a bumper crop, and prices were down because of that,” Sharma said. “This was just your classic demand and supply situation.”

Both Ohio and Kentucky set records for soybean harvests in 2018: 289 million bushels and 103 million bushels, respectively. This is up significantly compared to two decades ago, when Ohio harvested 162 million bushels and Kentucky harvested a little over 24 million bushels in 1999.

Farmers are also becoming more efficient than ever before — Ohio set records in 2018 for most corn and soybean bushels produced per acre.

Oversupply problems haven’t been limited to grains, though. Small dairy farmers are also dealing with excess supply and tariffs, with hundreds of cases of extra milk being dumped at Ohio Valley food banks.

Farms At Risk

Greg Gibson’s operation is small, but his family has made it work for decades. He milks 80 cows at his dairy farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, and he took over the operation in 2002. The past year of tariffs hasn’t been easy.

“Everything’s down. Historically, if milk price is down you can sell some corn or you could sell some replacement animals are something,” Gibson said. “But nothing has a lot of value to sell right now, so it’s really hard to generate any additional revenue. And a lot of that is because of the trade problems we’re having.”

Like many Ohio Valley farmers, Gibson is receiving payments from the $12 billion in federal relief from the Market Facilitation Program intended to to help those who suffer losses from tariffs.

Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Gibson appreciates Trump’s efforts to renegotiate trade deals, and like Alexander, is cautiously hopeful about the prospects of new trade deals.

But he said he’s also disappointed in Trump because the payments are not nearly enough to recoup his losses. He says milk’s price has plummeted nearly a dollar per hundred pounds of milk sold and the payments only reimburse 12 cents of that.

“I would have rather him said ‘I got to do this. You’re going to take the hit. Sorry.’ Don’t promise me you’re going to take care of me and then don’t,” Gibson said.

Some commodity associations including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have called on the Trump administration in past months to bolster what they call lackluster relief payments.

Gibson’s squeezed budget has had him extend paying off his farm loans and put off paying several repair bills. He’s also had to put up his 150-year-old family farm as collateral for his loans.

Farm lenders say Gibson’s situation isn’t unique right now. Senior Vice President of Agricultural Lending Mark Barker helps oversee lending for Farm Credit Mid-America, which serves most of Ohio and Kentucky.

“Are we doing things differently? Well, sure,” Barker said. “Because we have customers coming in now and telling us ‘I’m struggling at this point. I’m challenged.’”

Barker said while most people are making their loan payments right now, the rapidly increasing amount of debt farmers are taking on to deal with depressed prices is concerning, especially for smaller operations.

“It seems like the larger producers, you think about their equipment and everything else, they’ve got some added advantages,” Barker said. “It doesn’t mean the smaller producer is necessarily ‘out,’ but I do think they got more challenges in this current environment.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture economists predict nationwide farm debt will reach $263.7 billion in 2019, levels of debt not seen since the 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of farm families defaulted on their loans amidst a trade embargo with the Soviet Union and high loan interest rates.

New Farmers

Tom McConnell leads the Small Farm Center at West Virginia University’s Extension Service and tries to help small farms succeed, in a state that has the highest proportion of small farms in the nation. He’s lived through the 1980s farm crisis and saw many dairy and beef farmers lose their farms.

He said one solution for small farmers to withstand these depressed prices is to switch to crops that bring a higher value, like vegetables. But those can be more labor-intensive, and the transition can be difficult.

“If you’ve been in a family that has milked cows or grown row crops for three generations, and I suggest you grow three acres of sweet corn and five acres of snap beans, there will be some resistance to that,” McConnell said.

McConnell said it might take a new generation to redefine what a successful small farmer business model can look like.

One of those younger small farmers is Joseph Monroe, who moved from Indiana to central Kentucky to raise beef cattle and grow tomatoes and greens. Monroe believes a way forward for smaller farms is to find ways to work together to sell products and have a greater market impact.

“I think there needs to be some pioneers and some examples out there of how to draw up a contract to work together,” Monroe said. “I think we need to throw all the darts and see what hits.”Share on Twitter

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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