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Farm therapy, peach trees among ideas for dying coal country

MANCHESTER, Ky. (AP) — Walking around on a former coal mine in Knott County earlier this week, Gregg Hewins saw something that surprised him: peach trees.

“Apparently people had taken lunch up there with them, tossed out a peach pit and it started growing,” he said. “That there is potential.”

As coal mines continue to close across Appalachia, the race is on to figure out a viable way to replace them. This year, President Barack Obama’s administration has made more than $65 million in federal grants available for projects to help coal counties from Pennsylvania through the Carolinas. The application period for the program, dubbed the Power Initiative, began last month, and officials say the response has been strong. Hewins was one of about 215 people who attended a public workshop in Manchester on Friday to learn how to apply for the money.

Hewins, who attended the workshop for AmeriCorps Vista, wants to use the money to help turn some of those mines into farms. Between 2011 and 2015, about 23,000 coal jobs were lost in Appalachia, representing about 87 percent of all coal job losses in the United States during that time. Politicians and business and community leaders have been desperately searching for ways to replace those jobs. Most of the attention has focused on technology jobs by increasing access to high-speed Internet connections. Agriculture usually is not seen as a viable option, given the mountainous terrain and the damage years of coal mining has done to the soil.

But the Appalachian Regional Commission, which will distribute about $46 million of the money, is actively seeking agriculture projects. Last year, the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development won more than $500,000 in a similar federal program for a project in eastern Kentucky.

“There is a lot of energy in both West Virginia and Kentucky around young farmers,” said Earl Gohl, federal co-chairman for the Appalachian Regional Commission.

As of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Knott County had 42 farms averaging about 161 acres per farm. That’s about 3 percent of all the land in the county. Hewins says any expansion would have to include former surface mines. But one problem is that potential farmers don’t have the money to buy the land. And the money from the grant program can’t be used to help farmers buy land, according to Jeffrey Schwartz with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“That’s a huge stumbling block,” Hewins said.

But other projects could be viable. Hewins said he is working on using farming as a type of therapy for a drug rehabilitation center located on a former coal mine in Knott County.

The money is available for counties impacted by the decline of the coal industry, but does not cover the total cost of each project; applicants have to come up with at least some of the money themselves. How much depends on the county’s economic situation. Projects in “distressed counties,” as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, have to pay 20 percent of the cost, while “transitional counties” have to cover 50 percent, and “at-risk counties” have to cover 70 percent.

Of the 102 “distressed counties” in Appalachia, 38 are in Kentucky, the most of any state.

Related: In new book, coal miners tell stories in their own words

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