Black Farmers Are Rebuilding Agriculture in Coal Country

Jason Tartt, a farmer in West Virginia, says the Mountain State is fertile territory for honey production and maple and fruit orchards in the flood plains. Tartt, who is Black, sees his role as both developing economic opportunity through farming and supporting other Black farmers in West Virginia.

Growing up in rural McDowell County (population 19,111 in 2020), Tartt remembers that it was commonplace for Black people in his community to be involved in small-scale agriculture, whether they were growing gardens or processing pork and poultry. Those practices tapered off over the years as Black people left seeking better economic prospects in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. The population overall in McDowell County has declined by more than 20 percent since 2010, and Black people make up just 8.5 percent of the local population.

In West Virginia, only 31 of 23,622 farms are Black-owned or -operated.

As a farmer, Tartt’s goals are twofold: build a viable agricultural economy in the county and state, and attract other Black people to see West Virginia, and particularly McDowell County, as a viable place to build a life.

In the United States, Black farmers are an underrepresented group. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 35,470 farms are Black-owned, out of more than 2 million total farms. The majority of farms in the U.S. are owned by white people. In West Virginia, only 31 of the 23,622 farms are Black-owned or -operated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that farmers who identified as Black or Black in combination with another race accounted for just 1.4 percent of the approximately 3.4 million agricultural producers in an industry that generated $388.5 billion in 2017.

Coal continues to be West Virginia’s most visible industry. In 2020, West Virginia was the second largest producer of coal, after Wyoming, and accounted for 13 percent of total coal production in the U.S. But employment in the coal industry fell 17 percent from 2016 to 2020, and in West Virginia, the number of industry jobs fell to 11,418 in 2020, down from a peak of more than 100,000 jobs in the 1950s.

Employment opportunities in coal mining were a draw for many Black southerners like Tartt’s family, who migrated from Alabama in the 1920s and put down roots in the Appalachian region that now stretch back four generations. As coal dwindles in West Virginia, Tartt says many people, regardless of their race, are left without much economic opportunity.

“There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment, those sorts of things,” Tartt says. “A lot of that is because the coal mining industry is gone. In addition to that, it’s almost like these people and this place have been left behind.”

This is where farming enters the picture. Tartt enlisted in the military in 1991 and worked as a U.S. Department of Defense contractor before returning to McDowell County in 2010. In his second career as a farmer, he is using his new role to help educate the local residents about what bounty lies in the flood plains and mountainous terrain. Tartt has piloted growing fruit orchards and making honey on hillsides and has plans to expand. He recently leased 335 acres to build out the hillside growing model.

Shortly after returning to West Virginia, Tartt joined the Veterans & Heroes to Agriculture program run through the state’s Department of Agriculture. The program was started with a mission to help veterans or people transitioning out of the military to enter the agricultural sector.

The program’s overall goal is to empower the public to control their access to fresh food.

While in the program, he met Skye Edwards, who had learned to farm growing up on the Eastern Band of Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. Tartt and Edwards decided to start McDowell County Farms in 2013.

“[Edwards] was an older man. You know how the old-timers are, they don’t spare feelings,” Tartt says. “They just give it to you straight. He really taught me a lot: the business side of [farming], the science that goes into it. So, he gave me that kind of perspective and really helped me to appreciate what went into this creation, but also how to make the most of it.”

Tartt and Edwards (who passed away in early 2021) linked up with West Virginia State University Extension Service. The program’s overall goal is to empower the public to control their access to fresh food. They do this by connecting farmers, growers, and ranchers from underserved backgrounds, like Black and brown communities, or other people in Appalachia who are transitioning out of mining and timber and have limited job prospects.

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