With coal trains chugging past in the distance, Jack Perry watches as his wife, Margie, plants row upon row of Hungarian pepper seedlings in the community garden that residents of this West Virginia coal town call the “Garden of Eatin’.”
“The peppers they sell at the stores don’t taste anything like this,” says Perry, a retired coal worker. His grandfather brought over the original batch of seeds in the early 1900s when he arrived from Hungary to work in southern West Virginia’s mines.
The coal industry that sustained those generations is on life support in Williamson and surrounding Mingo County, battered by exhausted mines and competition from natural gas. Williamson’s faded sign welcoming drivers to “the heart of the billion dollar coal field” now competes with billboards for weight loss and pain clinics, and the main street is lined with empty storefronts and pawn shops.
Unlike their neighbors in Kentucky, where there have been state-sponsored economic transition efforts, West Virginians have been largely left on their own to respond to coal’s decline. The state’s politicians have focused on fighting federal emissions regulations in Congress and in court, blaming the Obama administration for imposing what they say are crippling costs on the industry.
But many people here argue that hope rides less on the outcome of court challenges and more on things as humble as Margie Perry’s peppers. She sells her produce at a locally funded farmers’ market in this town of 3,000, part of a community movement called “Sustainable Williamson.”
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Dino Beckett, a Williamson native who left home to attend medical school but returned a dozen years ago. Now 45, with two children of his own, Beckett is determined to help restore the town to the thriving place his parents knew.
“Our approach to the transition away from coal is holistic community development,” says Beckett, sitting in the Williamson Health and Wellness Center that serves as headquarters of Sustainable Williamson. He sees a local-foods movement as a way to help some of the least-fit people in America get healthier, while laying the foundation for eventual large-scale agriculture and economic development on coalfields once flattened for mining.
“A lot of people don’t associate health with entrepreneurship,” Beckett said. “But if we help people get healthy, the workforce is going to get healthy and they are going to want to work and participate in activities that help their families.”
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