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Sweet Equity: Ohio Valley Farmers Tapping Into Tradition

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Eastern Kentucky’s steep terrain helps capture sap efficiently, explains Seth Long. Photo: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

When Seth Long first began experimenting with maple syrup production, he tapped hollow pegs called spiles into individual trees, collected drips of sap in milk jugs, and carried each gallon down the steep mountainside on foot.

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Now, Long rides an open-air buggy up muddy switchbacks to a 500-gallon collection tank from which translucent blue tubes branch out like arteries. There, gallons of sap accumulate from Long’s 270 maple trees before they flow through those tubes 900 feet down the mountain to Long’s grant-funded sugar shack. A shared-use reverse osmosis machine removes most of the water before the sap enters the evaporator to boil for hours until it turns into thick, dark maple syrup.

“Some of the sap is travelling 2,400 feet before it gets down to our evaporator,” Long said.

Maple sap flows through tubing on Long’s farm. Courtesy: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collecting sap the old-fashioned way, 14 gallons of sap was a big day, Long said. Now, three seasons into mechanized production, Long estimates his network of tubes, tanks and gauges can process 800 gallons per day.

“When we were introduced to the tubing, it kind of changed everything,” Long said. “Now I can get sap off that tree up there way on that hilltop and never touch it until it’s down at the evaporator.”

Long is the president of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, a year-old group of maple syrup producers hoping to put the sweet concoction on the map in the Bluegrass State. Long and his wife Sheryl run the 50-acre SouthDown Farm in Letcher County. The pair sells vegetables, jams and baked goods at local supermarkets and to individual buyers. Long said that in 2018, with 200 taps operating, the family produced about $3,200 worth of finished maple products. It’s far from enough to sustain a family, but it’s extra income at a time of the year when not much else is happening on the farm.

“What we’re doing here in eastern Kentucky with maple syrup is kind of calling back a distant memory,” Long said.

He and other maple producers in the region view maple syrup as more than just another crop. For them, it’s one sweet part of a new, decentralized economy that’s capitalizing on a long tradition.

Necessity to Choice

Appalachia has a deep history of small-scale agriculture, from regional crops like sorghum to the cultivation of heirloom beans. Historians say maple production in the Ohio Valley dates back to Native American communities tapping maples long before the arrival of Europeans. Ohio Valley residents regularly tapped maples for personal use through World War II, when sugar rations made syrup a valuable commodity.

“Some of that has been lost,” said Kathlyn Terry, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.  “I’ve heard people share, ‘I’m not ever breaking beans. I’m not going to do it, because I don’t have to.’ And that was a sign of success, that you didn’t have to.”

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a nonprofit organization that uses agriculture as a means of economic development in the Appalachian region. Terry said she’s excited about the potential of non-timber forest products for hilly, forested regions like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Maple syrup is a non-timber forest product, as are herbs, ramps, and mushrooms.

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commericial. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commercial.

Terry pointed to a revival of traditional agriculture and a new appreciation for Appalachian cuisine, with books like Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals” giving renewed importance to traditional foodways. “Now we’re seeing people recognize, ‘Wow, we really lost something by stepping away from that.’ And in addition to losing the skills and the knowledge, they lost a connection to their history.”

SouthDown’s Seth Long agreed. “They did it in the old days out of necessity. What if we did it as an economic driver?”

Long’s maple stand sits atop an old surface coal mine site. Maple trees are faster-growing than some other local tree species, so they’re often the first to reach maturity on abandoned mines. Long finds satisfaction in doing small-scale agriculture on land that was once home to an extractive industry.

Long said even a few decades ago, most people dismissed farming as unnecessary in eastern Kentucky, but now there was more openness to a diverse economy. “This is something we can do that can make a real difference, that can have a real economic impact to the region.”

Big Potential

Northeastern states like Vermont, New York and Maine produce the vast majority of American maple syrup. Ohio produces far less, but still consistently ranks among the top maple-producing states in the country, with 708 producers reporting in the last agriculture census.

(Experts say there are likely far more small-scale producers, since they are less likely to be counted in official data. All that makes tracking maple production a particular challenge.)

West Virginian producers are building an agritourism economy around the novelty of the seasonal crop. And producers in Kentucky are just beginning to explore how big maple could be.

Shad Baker, the agriculture extension agent in Letcher County, Kentucky, was always looking for ways to make the best of eastern Kentucky’s hilly, forested terrain. He knew that agriculture in Letcher County would never be large-scale, high-volume production, but rather multiple niche crops that didn’t need much flat land.

“My mom worked in the mines,” Baker said, “And we had this old mining sticker that said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Well, maple syrup is a great example of a bird in the hand.”

Although Kentucky and West Virginia are not traditional maple country, the particularities of the landscape make the crop an unlikely fit. The steep grade means there’s no need for the costly vacuum systems often used in more traditional maple states like Vermont and New York.

Sap flows when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so Kentucky and West Virginia have a longer production season and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And, Baker said, maples release sap in January and February, a time when a small farm operation wouldn’t traditionally be able to turn a profit.

“I always tell people they can put a TV in their sugar shack and watch UK basketball while they evaporate,” Baker said with a laugh.

There are downsides. Appalachia’s impressive biodiversity means maple trees are more spread out among other species, requiring more effort to connect them to one another. And critically, sap from maple trees in Appalachia has a lower sugar content than sap from trees in traditional maple country, which means producers have to spend much more time boiling the sap or invest in an expensive reverse osmosis machine. A particularly low-sugar season can devastate profits.

In rural Letcher County, with its population of about 22,000, Baker estimates there are about eight producers in the county alone who were on their way to having commercial-sized operations, which is generally understood to be 500 taps or more. As many as 12 more maple syruping as a hobby, and that’s fine, Baker said. Maple syrup doesn’t have to be for everyone.

“It’s better for us in the long run if we’re diversified,” he said. “That way if the market changes or you lose your competitive advantage, then you’ve got other things to fall back on.”

Baker teaches maple producers to make value-added goods like maple candy, which can triple the value of a gallon of syrup. His office has purchased processing equipment to help producers make syrup at scale without investing too much money up-front. He wants to encourage hobbyists just as much as professionals like Long. “Maple syrup could easily be 50 percent of the ag output in Letcher County,” he said.

Producers in West Virginia open their sugar snacks in a state-wide agritourism event. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Maple Days

Across the state line in West Virginia, maple producers have capitalized on maple syrup’s niche appeal to create Maple Days, a popular agritourism event where farmers across the state open their doors to share their knowledge, sell their goods, and spread excitement about the new industry.

At Flanigan Family Maple in Prichard, West Virginia, Rich Flanigan has scaled up from a few hand-tapped trees to a 470-tree operation, and plans to grow to 1,000 taps next season. A full-time forester for a land-management company, Flanigan processes sap on nights and weekends during maple’s short production season. In a full day, he could process up to 2,000 gallons of sap, or roughly 50 gallons of syrup.

At Flanigan’s Maple Day open house, visitors mill about, peering into Flanigan’s evaporator and gushing over samples of homemade maple pies and cookies. Flanigan takes guests on tours of his operation. But the most exciting attraction is the cotton candy machine, where maple sugar enters and puffy clouds of spun sugar emerge. The machine has paid for itself multiple times over, Flanigan said; the cotton candy is a best-selling, value-added product.

Value-added goods like maple cotton candy can triple the profit from one gallon of syrup. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Indeed, fellow maple syrup producer Greg Christian comes up the hill from his own maple day event, a pancake breakfast in a local church. Christian has sold out of cotton candy and needs to buy 10 more bags for his guests.

“This industry is a labor of love,” Christian said. He works full-time as an engineer, but he says the profits from his maple syrup and honey operations add significantly to the family’s income.

For him, turning a hobby into a business was worth it for the joy it brought his family. He loved spending quality time in the sugar shack with his father, and was excited about sharing the experience with his young daughter as she grew up.

Taking Root

Seth Long says the next step for the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association is to get Kentucky added to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s maple syrup program, which would formalize the crop as part of the state’s agriculture output.

But following the 2017 national agricultural census, six states with higher production than Kentucky, including Ohio and West Virginia, were slated for removal from the program because their production numbers were too small.

Charmaine Wilson, state statistician for the USDA’s West Virginia statistics office, said production is growing “slowly but steadily” in the state, but West Virginia still accounts for a small percentage of the country’s total supply. Removal from USDA statistical programs is routine for niche crops.

Wilson acknowledged the loss of up-to-date data could be a challenge for producers. “Data is basically the info you need to put in a grant to justify getting money you need for a program. Data lets the legislators know how relevant a crop is in West Virginia. Data gives you that drive to get what you want when it comes to making laws.”

Maple syrupers in the Ohio Valley don’t expect maple syrup to single-handedly solve the region’s economic woes, but view the product as one part of a diverse, sustainable economy.

Maple syrup is “renewable, it’s long-term, it’s reliable, and it’s non-extractive,” said Letcher County’s Shad Baker. “This can’t be taken from us.”

Agriculture

Trump’s USDA Is Letting Factories With Troubling Safety Records Slaughter Chickens Even Faster

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Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Workers are getting injured, but the Department of Agriculture says their safety is not its responsibility.

Sixty miles northeast of Atlanta, a chicken statue atop a 25-foot monument proclaims the small city of Gainesville, Georgia, the “Poultry Capital of the World.” In the rolling hills outside of town, white feathers trail the trucks turning into a slaughterhouse operated by a local company called Fieldale Farms.

The Fieldale factory employs about 1,900 people. A lawn sign advertises jobs for $11-plus an hour and a big banner shouts “Think Safe, Work Safe.” But in recent years, according to federal safety records obtained by ProPublica, the factory has been the site of several grisly accidents, resulting in hospitalizations, amputations and death.

Those accidents didn’t prevent Fieldale from getting special permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speed up its processing lines. Chicken companies have long wanted to operate their plants faster so that they can boost profits, either by producing more chickens or using less labor. But speeding up increases the risks to employees already working in dangerous conditions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

It’s been only a few months since the speed increase took effect, not long enough to make meaningful before-and-after comparisons. And there is no available data to compare injury rates at the factories with higher speeds to the industry average because the Trump administration scrapped a requirement for employers to submit their injury logs. What is clear, from safety records obtained by ProPublica, is that most of the 11 plants that received permission to run faster did so despite having a history of serious accidents, including deaths.

The chicken industry has higher injury rates than coal mines or construction sites, and it’s the biggest source of finger amputations. Workers are under constant pressure to keep production going at a grueling speed. They typically perform one motion over and over, handling knives just a few inches from the next worker, surrounded by harsh chemicals and spinning blades.

“Increasing line speeds will increase poultry workers’ exposure to all of these hazards,” David Michaels, the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said in a 2012 memo opposing a USDA proposal at the time to increase line speeds. Scientific studies, including both government-funded and industry-sponsored, have established that going faster worsens the risk of repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. There is also evidence that feeling rushed or struggling to keep up with the work pace are factors in traumatic injuries.

“My conclusion from conducting this detailed research is there is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers,” Melissa Perry, chair of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said in a submission to the USDA opposing a similar plan to raise line speeds in pork slaughterhouses. The USDA is moving forward with that policy despite an internal investigation into whether the agency relied on flawed data to justify it.

For chicken factories, the USDA isn’t going through the time-consuming and contentious process of making a new regulation with a higher speed limit. Instead, it agreed to waive the existing cap for companies that ask. “This deregulatory action would advance the president’s objective to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens,” the National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, said in its formal request for the waivers.

When the USDA started issuing line speed waivers to poultry plants last year, the agency said it wouldn’t consider the impact on worker safety. “The agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety,” the USDA said in its official announcement of the speed waivers. “OSHA is the federal agency with statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”

But OSHA has no control over line speeds. A spokeswoman with the agency said the USDA “has sole jurisdiction over line speeds at these plants.”

This gap in the regulatory framework puts workers at risk, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. She now directs the National Employment Law Project’s Worker Health and Safety Program.

“The USDA doesn’t care about worker safety, they just care about increasing profits for huge meatpacking companies,” Berkowitz said. “If production increases and everybody has to work harder and faster in an already dangerous environment, that increases injuries.”

The National Chicken Council’s request for waivers acknowledged that “worker safety is a factor plants must consider when deciding the most appropriate line speed for their operations.” But the trade group argued that this shouldn’t prevent the USDA from issuing waivers because companies could take actions to address the risks.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator, Carmen Rottenberg, has said in a December interview with trade press that the agency plans to use the line speed waivers to revisit the case for lifting the limit everywhere. The USDA declined to provide an interview with Rottenberg, and her spokesman declined to comment on the timeline for that proposal.

“A Deadly Trap”

Before it received a waiver, the Fieldale plant repeatedly broke safety rules, and managers clashed with OSHA over its enforcement efforts, according to hundreds of pages of records obtained by ProPublica.

Inside the plant, there’s an insulated room for storing ice. Ice cubes fall from the ceiling into a huge mound; they then slide through turning screw-shaped blades that break up the ice and feed the cubes into the factory. The blades are covered by a grate in the floor.

One morning in 2014, a worker went inside to fetch some ice. Some of the bars in the floor grate were loose or missing, but the worker couldn’t see the gaps buried under the ice. His foot fell through the faulty grate and onto the screw-shaped blades, severing his leg below the knee. He crawled out of the ice house and cried for help.

“He’s bleeding bad and he’s in shock,” an employee told the 911 dispatcher. “Please tell them to hurry up before the man dies.”

The worker survived, but his leg was so damaged that all but five inches had to be amputated.

The plant manager, David Rackley, told the OSHA inspector that the worker got hurt because he was “thin” so his foot must have fit through the regular spaces in the grate. The inspector measured the width of the thick rubber boots that the worker was wearing (5 inches) against the spaces in the grate (2 inches). Then Rackley abandoned his claim, according to the OSHA report. The inspector called Rackley’s shifting explanations “deceptive” and “not true.”

The inspector learned from interviewing employees that Fieldale hadn’t bothered to fix the grates despite repeated complaints about the missing bars. Then, right after the accident, the company immediately fixed the grates and “covered up” records of the sudden repair. The inspector called it “a deadly trap.”

Rackley, who is still the plant manager, referred questions to Fieldale’s president, Tom Hensley. In an interview, Hensley repeated the false claim that the worker was injured because he was “small” and “somehow his small little foot got through the guard.” When presented with the inspector’s measurements and discovery that Fieldale “covered up” its repair of the faulty bars, Hensley said he wasn’t aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard that,” he said.

The OSHA inspector had previously warned Fieldale about maintaining protective barriers around dangerous equipment, after an unguarded conveyor had sliced open an employee’s arm. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.

The Fieldale plant had a longtime handyman named Ricardo Aburto. Aburto’s job was to patch things up to keep the line running until a full repair could occur during downtime on the weekend, according to his wife, Alicia De La Paz.

On a Tuesday in July 2015, Aburto climbed up on a ladder to fix a high-power light, according to OSHA records. To remove the cover, he touched his screwdriver to a bolt. Instantly, he dropped to the floor.

“He stopped breathing,” a nurse told the 911 dispatcher.

The wires that powered the light were supposed to be surrounded by insulation. But over time the coating wore down and Fieldale hadn’t replaced it, the OSHA inspector found. The exposed conductors electrified the light’s casing, shocking Aburto as soon as his screwdriver touched it. He was killed.

OSHA cited Fieldale for failing to insulate the wiring and for leaving the light on while Aburto was working on it. Fieldale paid a fine of $4,900.

Despite the coroner’s finding that Aburto was electrocuted, which was reported in the local newspaper, Hensley maintained to ProPublica that Aburto died of a heart attack. He also said his engineers found nothing wrong with the light, even though the OSHA inspector took a photo of the exposed wiring. Hensley acknowledged that the light should not have been on while Aburto was working on it.

De La Paz said she was furious when she learned that Aburto’s death was so easily preventable. She said she wanted to sue but she couldn’t get a lawyer who would take the case because none of the witnesses would agree to testify against Fieldale.

“I miss him every single day,” De La Paz said. “That’s a pain nothing can ever take away.” Four years later, she still describes him in the present tense: “Ricardo is,” instead of “Ricardo was.”

De La Paz said that since Fieldale failed to take simple and required safety precautions, it should not have received special permission to speed up operations, possibly exposing employees to additional risks.

In response, Hensley disputed that the line speed increase has any effect on worker safety. “It wouldn’t matter how many birds a minute were processed through the plant for that accident,” he said. “So we had a couple of bad ones, and we regret them, for sure.”

A few days after the USDA announced that it would start granting line speed waivers, Hensley introduced Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, at an industry conference in Atlanta. Georgia is the country’s No. 1 chicken producer, and agriculture is its top industry.

“President Trump could not have selected a better person for secretary of agriculture than Georgia’s own Sonny Perdue,” Hensley said at the event. Hensley and Perdue have known each other for years. Fieldale has bought corn from Perdue’s farm, Hensley said. (The secretary is not related to the chicken brand.) Hensley sends Perdue Christmas cards.

Fieldale became one of the first companies to receive a line speed waiver, in October 2018. In May, the USDA granted a second waiver to another Fieldale facility nearby, where a worker clearing an air pipe had lost several fingers in the blade of a rotary valve.

Hensley told ProPublica he hasn’t been in touch with Perdue outside of the conference and he doesn’t think their relationship had any effect on the waiver. A USDA spokesman said the waiver decisions were made by career staff, not political appointees.

After the speed increase took effect, an employee’s fingers were cut off while he was trying to remove a piece of chicken stuck in a machine that removes neck skin, according to OSHA records. Hensley said this machine’s speed hasn’t changed.

“Our backs hurt when we go faster,” said Luis Miguel Santiago Torres, a 30-year-old worker who said he injured his knee at the Fieldale factory and recently left. “We are humans.”

“An Odd Coincidence”

In October 2018, the USDA gave a line speed waiver to Gerber Poultry in Kidron, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland. The company had requested the waiver with a one-page cover letter that made no mention of worker safety.

In anticipation of cranking up the speed, the company decided to order a spare set of motors so it wouldn’t lose any time if one of them broke. So the staff needed to look up the part numbers. A maintenance man named Bill Derwacter climbed up on a stepladder to read the number off one of the motors, suspended 10 feet above the factory floor.

Derwacter said he knew that federal regulations require factories to turn off equipment whenever it’s being serviced, but he didn’t think it was a big deal to climb up and read the part number, something he’d done many times before.

As Derwacter stood up there, the motor’s spinning sprocket snatched his sleeve, pulling his arm into the machine. The motor sliced his arm open and snapped a bone. It yanked him off the stepladder and threw him to the floor.

Gerber’s vice president for compliance, Glenn Mott, said he saw the ambulance outside just as he was stepping out of a meeting with USDA officials about implementing the speed increase. “I thought, that’s such bizarre timing,” Mott, who signed the letter requesting a speed waiver, said in an interview. “It was an odd coincidence.”

Derwacter said he’s grateful to Gerber for covering all his medical expenses, including multiple surgeries, and holding his job for him. “They took amazing care of me; I can’t even say nothing bad,” Derwacter said. “It was truly 100% an accident.”

OSHA, however, faulted Gerber for failing to turn off the motor and for not making sure employees followed the rule to do so. The inspector proposed a fine of $14,782, which was later reduced to $11,086.

Mott acknowledged that the line should not have been running while Derwacter was near it. But he said the accident did not cause him to rethink his plans because it could have happened at any speed. Starting the next day, the company gradually increased its speed over several weeks until reaching the new maximum.

“I Can’t Do a Lot of Things Anymore”

The injuries from working in chicken factories are often not from traumatic accidents, but from the steady strain of doing one thing over and over, at a fast pace. These injuries, which can be painful and debilitating, were already common, and researchers say speeding up the lines will make them worse.

“Despite repeated studies in this industry in the past 20 years that found high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome, poultry processing jobs continue to be hazardous,” researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said in 2014. “We found that the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome increased with increasing exposure to the occupational risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders,” such as repetition.

Ethan Doney said that, on his first day at Peco Foods in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 2016, he and other new hires were told by the company that they should report any injuries to the on-site nurse, and anyone who went to an outside doctor would be fired.

Peco officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Peco’s facilities in neighboring Mississippi were among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest sweep in decades.)

Doney was tasked with cutting meat off the bone. By the second month working shifts as long as 12 hours, Doney’s fingers started locking up and he felt a burning sensation all the way up to his shoulder.

He said he went to the nurse every day for three months, but she refused to send him to a doctor because she said he was faking. Doney said the nurse put some balm on his hands, wrapped them up and sent him back to work.

After six months, Doney got so fed up that he quit and went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and nerve damage in both elbows. Both arms needed surgery. Doney asked Peco to pay for the procedures, but the company said no, because he was no longer an employee. The company also refused to rehire him, Doney said, because the same nurse who previously accused him of faking now said he couldn’t work until he had the surgeries.

Doney had the operation on his left arm, but he didn’t have surgery on the right one because it was scheduled for the day his twins were born. He still hasn’t had the procedure and continues to feel the effect of his injuries. “I couldn’t hold them for long periods of time,” Doney, 25, said of his children. “I can’t do a lot of things anymore.”

One of Doney’s co-workers at Peco, Lazaro Villegas, took pride in how fast he could pull chicken breasts off the bone. Villegas said he knew the workers were supposed to rotate through different positions to avoid repetitive strain injuries, but the supervisors often shifted them right back or didn’t move them at all. “They put a lot of stress on the supervisors to make sure the line keeps moving,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”

Villegas, 48, started waking up in the middle of the night with intense pain in his hands. “It would hurt like needles poking at you,” he said. “I’d be dead asleep and boom, the pain would just be way too much.” Peco moved him to a different department that was supposed to be less strenuous, but the pain didn’t go away. After a year, the company finally sent him to a doctor, who said he had carpal tunnel in both hands. Peco paid for surgery on the right hand but fired Villegas two days before the operation, he said, because he’d missed too many days of work. The doctor said Villegas’ left hand wasn’t bad enough to justify surgery, but it still bothers him.

“Peco needs to learn how to treat their employees better,” Villegas said. “Even if they gave me more money right now, I still wouldn’t go back.”

This story is co-published with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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Agriculture

How A Grass Might Generate Fuel And Help Fix Damaged Mine Lands

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West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen among giant miscanthus on an old mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Down bumpy back roads deep in central West Virginia, a flat, bright green pasture opens up among the rolling hills of coffee-colored trees.

Wildflowers and butterflies dot the pasture, but West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen is here for something else that stands above the rest of the Appalachian scenery – literally.

Thick stalks of green-yellowish grass reach up 10 feet into the air like a beanstalk out of a fairy tale, and Skousen is dwarfed by it.

“I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way,” WVU’s Skousen said. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These plots I kind of know like my children,” he said. “But you see, you can’t hardly walk through this stuff – it’s worse than a jungle.”

Skousen and a team of graduate students have grown giant miscanthus for close to a decade here near Alton, West Virginia, a place that wasn’t always a pasture.

The site is one of numerous old surface coal mines across the Ohio Valley that was reclaimed, replacing the once barren ground with a layer of rocky topsoil.

The cumulative size of land impacted by strip mines across central Appalachia is roughly the size of the state of Delaware – roughly 1.5 million acres – according to a 2018 Duke University study.

This animation shows the expansion of surface mining’s footprint (displayed in yellow) from 1985 to 2015 for a 31,000 square kilometer sub-region of the study area in West Virginia and Kentucky and has county boundaries visible. Credit: SkyTruth

After land is reclaimed, it remains an open question of how to use these degraded lands, from faltering lavender farms to golf courses. But Skousen, also a land reclamation specialist at WVU, believes a potential answer might be in this towering grass.

While other agricultural crops struggle with the poor soil quality here from past mining, giant miscanthus thrives.

“We’ve never fertilized them. We’ve never done anything to them other than let them grow,” Skousen said. “Which demonstrates their ability to grow on marginal mine land areas at this kind of rate, every year.”

And that rate is rapid: for every two tons of grassy material a regular pasture produces, Skousen estimates miscanthus grows 10 to 12 tons. That grassy material is what is called biomass, which can be turned into value-added products like heating pellets, biofuels like ethanol and more.

A patch of miscanthus towers above other grasses on the former mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“We could grow a crop like this and sell it to an ethanol producer or some other heating agent, and suddenly we have a sort of economy develop for an agricultural community,” Skousen said.

Skousen and other researchers see potential in giant miscanthus not only to create economic opportunity in Appalachia but to revitalize reclaimed strip mines and help reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Yet the commercial market for this “power plant” has yet to bloom, and some wonder whether it’s ultimately the best path for reclaimed mine land.

Root of the Matter

Ohio State University Professor Rattan Lal’s study of soil has spanned five decades and several countries.

“The health of soil, plants, animals and people is one and indivisible,” Lal said. “We need to reclaim these mine lands in one way or the other because they’re an important resource in terms of land area.”

He led a team of researchers in a recent three-year study to grow plots of miscanthus on a former strip mine near Zanesville, Ohio, and he also saw similar biomass growth. Yet the plant’s root system also intrigues Lal.

“At the same time, it sequesters carbon in the soil,” Lal said.

Carbon sequestration is the process of trapping and storing carbon emissions from the air to mitigate the effects of climate change. Lal said giant miscanthus is especially good at doing just that through sucking carbon through leaves and storing the carbon in roots.

“[Miscanthus] could become a sink for greenhouse gases … while at the same time produce biofuel, which is a substitute for fossil fuel,” Lal said. “Once it’s established, I think it should be a carbon-negative technology.”

Not only is there a potential benefit in combating climate change, but Lal said the soil quality could improve after several years, too, as microorganisms eat the extra stored carbon.

“The soil may be improved well enough that it could be used for other things such as corn or soybeans,” Lal said. “Coal mining was the source of emission gases. And now [miscanthus is] a solution. So that is to me, as an environmental researcher, even more critical than the money part.”

Efforts to make a profit from miscanthus in the Ohio Valley also date back a decade, but not all theses efforts were successful.

Aerial view of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. The “lake” in the center is a coal sludge waste impoundment. Credit: Vivian Stockman and Southwings

Unsteady Markets

Jeff Lowe believed he was at the cutting edge of a new industry when he launched his east Kentucky company Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2009.

“What’s only being talked about in other places is being done right here,” Lowe told the Associated Press at the time, alongside former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and other state officials.

His company had planned to recruit local farmers to grow hundreds of acres of miscanthus to be turned into pellets, which would then be mixed into coal-fired electricity plants in the Ohio Valley.

This machine at the defunct Midwestern Biofuels LLC created fuel pellets, out of miscanthus and other biomass, that could be burned for electricity. Credit: Midwestern Biofuels, LLC

He said several regional utility companies were interested, including Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.

First Energy announced in 2009 the utility planned to transition the coal-fired R.E. Burger Power Station in Shadyside, Ohio, to burn exclusively biomass to cut costs and meet state renewable energy regulations. Lowe said a contract was in the works to burn his miscanthus pellets there, but it ultimately fell through.

The company a year later changed directions and decided to retire the plant instead, citing falling electricity prices and falling demand from the 2008 recession. Lowe closed Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2013.

“We had no sales. We go from having complete capacity from one of the plants to nothing, overnight,” Lowe said. “If you’re not required to do it, then you generally don’t do it.”

The relative lack of commercial appeal for miscanthus is a challenge that entrepreneurs and researchers alike are still trying to tackle.

One company in Ashtabula County, in northeast Ohio, Aloterra Energy, stopped making biofuels from miscanthus because it was too costly.

“You can’t store our stuff outside in pellets because it’ll take water on, and coal is often outside in the elements,” Aloterra Energy Co-founder Jon Griswold said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked at everything.”

Despite those initial market challenges, Aloterra Energy is now using miscanthus to make products including recyclable food packaging and industrial absorbents.

“This is a growth industry. It just takes so long for people to figure out what you’re doing and why they need to be involved,” Griswold said.

Burning Questions

Yet some environmental activists are skeptical regarding the biofuel potential of miscanthus.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide progressive advocacy group, published a report in 2017 detailing how Kentucky could meet and go beyond the energy regulations put forth by the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was repealed and replaced last month.

The plan specifically excluded burning biomass as a viable energy option, because the organization didn’t generally consider biomass a carbon-neutral resource.

KFTC member Cassa Herron said while she isn’t completely against the idea of miscanthus as a biofuel, how these emissions are potentially regulated is key.

“The devil’s in the details in how you regulate such activity,” Herron said. “What does burning anything do to our community? And then how are regulatory agencies set up on a level to minimize those impacts?”

KFTC in its reasoning against biomass cited research from Partnership for Policy Integrity, an environmental nonprofit that specializes in biomass policy.

PFPI President Mary Booth said the added fossil fuel costs could be significant in transporting miscanthus from remote reclaimed mine sites and turning it into biofuel or biomass pellets.

“It really does eat into the net carbon emissions. It can really increase the carbon footprint of a pellet made from miscanthus,” Booth said.

Jeff Skousen is well aware that biomass energy has carbon emissions, but he believes the benefits of miscanthus outweigh the potential negatives. And past research has shown the potential for miscanthus being at least carbon neutral — meaning the grass absorbs enough carbon dioxide into the soil to make up for carbon emissions when it’s burned.

Skousen has seen the decline of the coal industry the past decade and various efforts to use the land that’s left behind. Ultimately, he wants to see the potential of that land fulfilled.

“Land is a permanent resource. And it’s always here. Even if it wasn’t reclaimed exactly the way we want it for that post-mining land use, we can change it,” Skousen said. “I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way.”

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

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Agriculture

House Budget Rejects Trump’s Proposed Cuts for Rural Programs

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Broken Bow Water Treatment Facility in Broken Bow, OK, on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

The budget bill also blocks the Department of Agriculture from moving two research agencies from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region. But the Senate has yet to take up any budget legislation.

The budget the House of Representatives passed in June reverses billions of dollars in cuts to rural programs proposed by the Trump administration and halts the relocation to Kansas City of two Washington-based USDA research agencies.

But the Senate has yet to consider any of the 10 budget bills passed by the House this year. The upper chamber will be in session only six weeks between now and the end of the fiscal year on September 30, when the current spending plan expires.

The House budget calls for $155.3 billion in funding for the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), $3.2 billion more than the current USDA budget.

H.R. 3055 passed 227-194 in a partisan vote, with all Democrats but one (Representative Ben McAdams, D-Utah) voting in favor and all Republican representatives voting against the budget.

The chairman of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee said the committee deals with issues that “touch the lives of every citizen on a daily basis.”

“This is why we rejected the administration’s draconian cuts to programs that assist our rural communities and vulnerable populations, and allocated more than $5.1 billion above the budget request, totaling $24.310 billion,” said Representative Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Georgia).

The House budget includes many priorities sought by nutrition, farm and rural development advocates that were included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“The House bill was praiseworthy for its inclusion of increases for sustainable agriculture research, food safety, local and regional food systems, training and outreach for beginning and socially disadvantaged, and other priority food and farm programs,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) stated.

The coalition’s funding priorities included an additional $5 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, as well as $10 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network above the levels included in the bill passed through the full Appropriations Committee.

H.R. 3055 includes $3.9 billion for rural development programs. Funding includes provisions for:

  • Rural infrastructure – The legislation includes $1.45 billion for rural water and waste program loans, as well as more than $655 million in water and waste grants. The House budget includes an additional $6.9 billion in loan authority for rural electric and telephone infrastructure loans.
  • Rural broadband – The House budget expands rural broadband funding by $680 million.
  • Rural housing–The bill includes $24 billion in loan authority for the Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program and $1 billion in direct single family housing loans. Additionally, the House budget includes nearly $1.4 billion in rental assistance for low-income rural residents in need of affordable housing.

The House appropriations bill includes numerous specific provisions that oppose Trump administration changes to current USDA policies and procedures. Most notably, the House bill includes language that blocks USDA’s proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to Kansas City away from the Washington, D. C., region. The House funding legislation also prevents USDA from finalizing self-inspection of swine slaughter by pork processors and preventing USDA from terminating Forest Service Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center.

The bill rejects the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The House has currently passed 10 out of 12 budget bills, while the Senate has yet to pass any budget bills. The next step in the budget process is for the Senate to pass the House budget proposal or draft its own version of the budget plan.

The Senate is expected to make significant changes to the House budget, which would require a negotiation process between House and Senate appropriations leaders.

The budget process must be complete by September 30. If not, Congress can choose to extend the current budget or another government shutdown will be triggered.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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