By Jennifer Colosimo
Just into the southern border of West Virginia, amidst dilapidated coal mines and forgotten acreage, sits a small farm owned by the Tartt family. Here, T&T Organics employs the farming practices of their ancestors to pull the utmost yield from their land, growing various crops and teaching others how to do the same. Many of their neighbors don’t know how to use their own farmland, which often winds up overgrown or sold to coal companies. As a result, McDowell County is home to some of the poorest people in Appalachia.
But change is coming. The Tartts are a part of the beginning of that change, working to drive economic development in the community. With the help of like-minded organizations, they’re sowing hope for a better (and tastier) future.
In July, Jason Tartt, owner of T&T Organics, was featured on CNN’s United Shades of America, promoting a four-fold partnership that aims to ignite a social enterprise for Appalachia starting with McDowell County. Appalachian Gold hopes to build Appalachia’s sustainable future through farming and by bottling shelf-stable products with the fruits of those farms.
The idea started with Josh McGee, founder of Y’all Company, a manufacturer of Southern small-batch sauces, when he reached out to Jason Coker, director of Together for Hope and Amelia Bandy, executive director of Economic Development Greater East for a meeting of the minds. He had an idea to highlight small farmers’ stories and help drive more income to those families through the bottling of shelf-stable products they could sell on a national scale. Over the last year, Appalachian Gold emerged from that idea. With their efforts combined, the hope is to double the median income in McDowell County and revamp the area’s economy and quality of life.
“What we were finding out is that people who make shelf-stable products—the smaller efforts—are kind of shunned,” said McGee. “We were thinking if we could help these small vendors out, it could be a good thing; and if we could put our efforts in an area where it would help create economic development and jobs and sustainable living so that people did not have to have three to four jobs, that would be really amazing.”
The idea starts with the farms, but culminates with commercial kitchen spaces that would allow a community to process, bottle and store its products. Appalachian Gold is already underway with a grant from the Family Foundation out of Texas to help them capitalize first on what makes the most sense for McDowell County—bee farming. The grant will help purchase the necessary equipment to get the bee farms up and running. Then they will harvest, process and bottle the honey that is produced right there in the community. McGee will leverage their relationships to reach a wider, more affluent customer, to sell wholesale to local restaurants, and to look at bulk bottling for those same customers, and the like.
“The main thing that we’re trying to do is bring awareness of this potential not just to McDowell County, but throughout Appalachia,” said McGee. “We’re seeing a resurgence of the small town; but the rural farmers are still being left behind. People can feed their families at a fast-food chain for $20 instead of buying tomatoes and produce at a farmer’s market, not knowing what to do with them. If we can convert that stuff into shelf-stable products like sauces and seasonings, that is keeping money going to them and we are be able to highlight their stories at the same time.”
As the bee farms get up and running, the future looks like this: Together for Hope will handle obtaining grants and conducting fundraising efforts for operational costs to build commercial kitchens for each farm. T&T Organics will train new farmers and help cultivate the ingredients for the products to bottle and sell. Economic Development Greater East will coordinate operations and employment of individuals in McDowell County. Y’all Company will execute marketing, food creative development and spearhead both national and international sales. In fact, Y’all Company is already in the kitchen, bottling a Tartt family recipe, “Mama’s Meat Sauce,” that consumers can purchase via the website, appalachiangold.com/.
Farms will be locally owned and operated, and the products will depend on what grows where. A chicken farm with a surplus of eggs might produce a Hollandaise sauce. A farm growing herbs suggests salad dressings, seasonings and other sauces. Infused oils and maple syrup are on the docket, too. Each new farm will introduce 15 to 20 jobs to the community and provide a sustainable future for the people there.
“We’re trying to do something to bring the medium income up,” said McGee. “Right now, it’s around $16,000, so even if we could double that, it would mean a lot. If we can get someone who is making shelf-stable products or farming, then that’s one family that’s saved from having to go back into the coal mines.”
The commercial kitchens are the key component to turning Appalachian Gold into a viable model. It’s not enough to just revive the farms, because the USDA and Department of Agriculture have strict regulations on how produce has to be cleaned and processed according to their standards. With money generated to build commercial kitchens, they’re setting up for the future in a way that provides multiple jobs for the community that isn’t short-term.
“There are 18,000 people who live in McDowell County,” says Coker. “In this area that we’re talking about, there are maybe a couple hundred people that live in that space and, if you have a kitchen where people can create their own products, handling production and distribution in that space, you create 20 jobs. That’s going to change that whole area.”
Building on the bee farm model, Coker will carry the idea to his partners in the Delta, the Black Belt, the Rio Grande and the Native American reservations where they can establish something similar to help economies there. The result is not just economic growth, but human connectivity and getting people back to work in a way that makes them feel proud.
Coker explained that for projects like this, the idea of scale has to be kind of reformulated. The solution isn’t a huge factory coming in with 1,000 jobs or a coal plant being opened up—things that come and go. But it is creating something rooted in the local community with jobs specifically for the people who live there. That, he says, is what can really move the needle in an area’s economy, and Appalachian Gold was created to do exactly that. These jobs include warehousing, shipping and receiving, inventory control and boxing. And once the infrastructure is there, it’s turnkey on training people to do them.
“This is what faith looks like,” Coker said. “Caring for your neighbor, leveraging our resources to make things happen for others. There’s nothing more Christian than that.” He nodded to Pastor Chuck Poole, Northminster Baptist Church, Jackson, Miss., who offered a recent, two-minute sermon in which he said that until you defend the orphan, plead for the widow and seek justice for the oppressed, God will not welcome your worship or hear your prayers. While many things might matter much to God, nothing matters more than that we sit down with and stand up for whomever in our world is most voiceless and vulnerable, suffering and struggling, marginalized and ostracized, embarrassed and excluded, left out and alone.
“My hope is that [a year from now] we will have 20 families living above the poverty line,” said McGee. “My hope is that we can replicate this model in other areas. My hope is that we’re able to show what this can actually do for people to give their dollars to keep these things alive. Capitalism can be used for good and, if this is successful in a year, hopefully people will be knocking on our doors asking how to do this in their area.”
Coker added, “In every one of our regions, people sitting around a table eating is an important part of what it means to be connected and in a community. It’s part of human survival. If we can structure how that happens in a way that creates community, that’s profound.”
The meat sauce can be ordered now via appalachiangold.com. Watch for new products to become available soon. You may also donate directly to the cause at tfhope.org. Your contributions will go toward helping build a better future through food, and that’s a palate-pleaser to suit any taste.