West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported earlier this year on an economic development project to grow lavender on former strip mines in West Virginia. After the story was released, the organization heard from a number of students involved in the program, saying they were disappointed and felt misled by the outcomes of the project, called Green Mining. West Virginia Public Broadcasting revisited the story to find out what happened and if the project is still going as expected. 

Back in 2014, West Virginia’s then-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin asked the West Virginia Regional Technology Park to come up with some ideas that could help generate new jobs for displaced coal miners in southern West Virginia. The idea that the CEO of the Technology Park, Rusty Kruslock, had was to grow lavender on former strip mines.

In 2016, the project was awarded grants through the Benedum Foundation, then the Appalachian Regional Commission, to fund the first couple years of the Green Mining program. In the interest of full disclosure, both of these organizations have also provided funding to West Virginia Public Broadcasting in the past.

Seventeen other companies also donated time and resources toward the first phase of the lavender project. The Technology Park offered classes to teach people how to grow lavender, and they paid the students a $10-an-hour stipend to attend classes. The project attracted 47 students in 2017, including several from out of state.

“We sold everything we owned, packed up our little car, [and] drove 9 hours to West Virginia,” said veteran Debra Ritchie, who moved to West Virginia from Florida with her husband, Scott, and their daughter after hearing about the Green Mining program.

“[We] came here to be lavender farmers,” said Scott Ritchie, who’s also a veteran. “We were supposed to get a deal to where once we graduate the school, they were supposed to give each [veteran] two acres of land. And we went to school, graduated from the school, and went to go talk about the land and…nothing. No call back. No email return, nothing.”

They said they were told that following the 6-week-course, they would have the option of growing lavender on a mine site, to help raise some supplemental income. But that didn’t happen.

“I definitely learned not to put all your eggs in one basket, that’s for sure,” Scott said. “We pretty much put all our eggs in one basket and the basket got knocked off the table.”

Other students we spoke to said they had also been led to believe that they would be offered land to grow lavender on after their six-week training course. Another veteran, Amber Stanley, lives just outside Charleston.

“Now I’m feeling pretty misled, and I also feel a little bit exploited,” said Amber Stanley, another veteran who completed one of the training courses in 2017.

Student with the Green Mining project in 2017. Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

So what happened? The project’s main organizer, Rusty Kruselock, said the grant money simply ran out. They couldn’t pay their staff anymore, so they couldn’t continue the next phase of the project. We asked him about the students who say they’re disappointed, people like Amber, Scott and Debra?

“We apologize if that’s the impression, we weren’t aware of that, but we certainly reached out in the springtime to everyone we could,” Kruselock said. “But we’ll do everything we can to rectify that in the future.”

An hour after we recorded that interview with Kruselock, a volunteer with the Green Mining project did send an email to the former students, asking if they would want to be a part of a new phase of their project, a lavender growing cooperative. The students we talked to said it was the first time they had heard from the program in seven months.

The idea behind the cooperative, in part, is to get former students to help maintain the existing lavender fields, as volunteers.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting visited the mine site nearly a year later to see how the plants had fared through the winter. The grey, moonscape soil now has some purple growing on it. Small plants of English and French varieties of lavender dot the rocky fields.

A little more than 3,000 lavender plants survived the winter. Kruselock said that’s about half of what they planted last year.

A few volunteers, and at least one person who’s been paid part time, has been up here in the past few months weeding the fields. Most of that weeding work has been done by Lori Bailey. She heard about the lavender project from a news story and reached out to see how she could get involved.

“I just thought that was the greatest thing, cause there’s so much land that’s had mountaintop removal and I just think that’s great [that lavender is] making that look beautiful,” Bailey said.

But without Bailey and a handful of volunteers up here, the lavender plants might have been overtaken by weeds.

Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

That’s still a risk if they don’t find a way to keep the volunteers engaged or figure out how to pay people to maintain the fields.

“The last thing you want to do is go out and plant 2,000 [or] 10,000 acres and then not have anybody to work it or not have anybody to take care of it,” said Marina Sawyer, one of the Green Mining project’s main organizers from last year.

“If we don’t have the workforce or the students coming out to do that work, then you end up losing valuable plants. And we’re not about that either.”

But a few months after this interview, Sawyer and the other staff were all let go. They were only contracted to work on a one-year grant, and the funding ran out.

WVPB reached out to the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funded the project last year, to ask if they are happy with the project’s outcomes. They didn’t want to do an interview, but Wendy Wasserman, director of communications, sent the following statement:

“This project proves that Appalachia’s coal impacted communities are well-positioned for innovative economic development. The Green Mining team identified an asset, did the research, and literally got their hands dirty. Now a series of new value added products using Appalachian-grown lavender are headed to market.”

Wasserman said the project was turned down for a second round of funding from the ARC because so many other projects applied for funding. She said the application process was incredibly competitive this year.

Meanwhile, Rusty Kruselock said that in a few years, he hopes these fields of lavender will be producing enough essential oil that will earn some income for the project.

“Most of our revenue down the road is going to be shared profits. Once we get oil processing, we’re gonna use the shared revenue to make the whole foundation self-sustaining.”

And the West Virginia Regional Technology Park does have the equipment, and the chemical expertise, to produce that oil. But they won’t be producing very much oil any time soon, not for at least another year or two, until the lavender plants are big enough.

So in the meantime, how will the program support itself and maintain the fields of lavender? Kruselock said although they didn’t receive a second year of funding from the ARC’s Power Plus program, they are going to try again later this fall. And he said, the handful of volunteers will help keep it going.

At this time, there are about five students still involved in helping the project grow.

Not among them is Debra and Scott Ritchie, who said they aren’t sure they have trust in the program anymore.

“It kind of put me back to that, ‘well why am I even trying?’ thought process,” Debra Ritchie said. “So I was angry. Real angry. And disappointed.”

She said it was nice to see the recent email that the project hasn’t gone completely underground, but they don’t have time to spend volunteering on the mine site, not at this time anyway.

At this point, the Ritchies are just struggling to pay their own bills. Debra got a job at a gas station, and her husband Scott is still looking for a job. They said they aren’t sure if they will stay in West Virginia, or if they plan to leave the state in search of work.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.