by Aimee Neilson
In the midst of the beautiful hills and hollows of Eastern Kentucky, enterprising individuals, with the College of Agriculture's support, are succeeding in several business ventures related to horticulture, livestock, forestry, and more.
Cary Briggs sought guidance in wrapping his unique technology project in Kentucky hardwood. Farmers Keith and Monica Hall turned to sweet potatoes to replace lost tobacco income. Cattleman Starling Fleming takes part in a unique heifer development program.
The UK College of Agriculture's Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability (RCARS) is motivating them, and others like them, to be a part of something new and exciting; something that could spur personal and economic growth in a region hit hard by tough times.
RCARS is a hub of knowledge, resources, and expertise to empower the people of Eastern Kentucky. Its director is David Ditsch.
"I'll never be an Eastern Kentucky native," Ditsch said, "but my wife and I decided to raise our family and spend our professional careers in the mountains hoping to make a difference here."
Ditsch said he's learned over the past 18 years the region's needs are overwhelming, but its potential is limitless.
"The Robinson Center won't 'save' the region, but it can make a very positive difference in the lives of motivated adults and youths," he said. "I want Eastern Kentucky entrepreneurs with a dream or an idea to see this as a place where they can tap into many resources and find strong leadership supported by relevant research and educational programs that fit Appalachian culture."
Some people already look to the center that way.
Cattle genetics success continues
Ditsch and former UK Professor Mike Collins had 70 cows in a reclaimed mine land grazing project at Perry County's D&D Ranch. The spring calves from that study helped form the Eastern Kentucky Heifer Development Program, spearheaded by D&D ranch manager Larry Clay, Charles May, Perry County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, and Les Anderson, UK extension beef specialist. The project aims to improve the region's cattle. Producers bring heifers to the ranch in October where they are bred and managed for an 11-month period. Virginia cattlemen and brothers Starling and Carter Fleming have 26 heifers in the program this year.
"I just like working with cattle," beamed Starling Fleming from underneath his worn ball cap. "When I started back in the 1970s, I bought anything I could to get a herd going, and there were no heifer programs back then."
Carter Fleming, his wife Caroline, and brother Starling have been long time participants in the Eastern Kentucky Heifer Development Program.
He runs about 60 head of Angus or Angus-Hereford crossbreds in any given year on 357-acres of rough mountain strip-mined land. He's brought heifers to the program at D&D almost since it started 10 years ago. He takes his bred heifers home at the program's end and claims he's seen improvements every year, especially in weaning weights.
Mike Gumm, Owsley County cattleman, grew up around cattle. He's brought heifers to the program for about 8 years and has 25 in the current program.
"They do a tremendous job with them, and what they shoot out of here in September is good and healthy," Gumm said. "If it's not top of the line, it won't stay in the program."
May said many producers claim their whole herd is made up of animals from the heifer development program.
"I guess that's a testimony to the program's success," he said. "I've received several reports from consignors and purchasers that they are experiencing far fewer calving problems and rising weaning weights. Regional livestock auction facilities have seen a noticeable improvement in Eastern Kentucky cattle, giving a lot of credit to this program."
While measuring the impact of the program on the region is difficult to assess, Ditsch said the fact that consignors are still submitting heifers to the waitlisted program is one indication that it's meeting a need.
Providing education, leadership for
new crop opportunities
On a cool October day, Keith and Monica Hall harvested sweet potatoes on their Morgan County farm, where they also raise livestock and grow corn and hay. The Halls used to grow tobacco, but like many tobacco growers, they're interested in profitable alternatives. With 15 other growers, they formed the East Kentucky Sweet Potato Growers Association in 2009.
Left to right:
Sarah Fannin, Tim Coolong, and Crystal Sparks discuss Keith and Monica Hall's sweet potato crop with ANR agent Mary McCarty.
With help from RCARS horticulture technician Crystal Sparks, UK horticulture specialist Tim Coolong, and Sarah Fannin, UK extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Morgan County, the Halls and other growers had a successful first-year crop in 2009 with an estimated 450 to 500 boxes harvested per acre.
"Sweet potatoes are a good fit for this area because you can do it on a small acreage, and if you're doing direct marketing, it's reasonably profitable with a fairly low capital investment," Coolong said. "It's not a high-input crop; the planting is fairly easy with a tobacco setter. You can set sweet potato slips about as fast as you can set tobacco."
Although dry conditions decreased 2010 yields, Fannin is not giving up on sweet potatoes.
"We are still working on issues of consistency," she said. "Yes, we were disappointed with 2010 weather challenges, but the experience prepared us for different things that can happen.
"The Morgan County Fiscal Court has set aside property for a curing/processing facility in a Morgan/Wolfe County joint industrial area right off the Mountain Parkway, " she added. "It'll give us a place to eventually create value-added products. The market is there; we just want to handle it properly."
Shawn Wright provides training to growers in Eastern Kentucky who are exploring new and traditional horticulture crops for their enterprises.
Shawn Wright, RCARS extension specialist for the UK Department of Horticulture, said the center will work with horticulture entrepreneurs to develop new and traditional horticulture crops.
"The same initiative, commitment, and hard-work that are characteristic of the region are the same characteristics that can help individuals have a successful horticulture enterprise given the proper tools, training, and a little bit of luck," he said.
Combining cutting-edge technology
with high-quality Kentucky hardwood
Cary Briggs and business partner Scott Templeton had some great ideas using interactive glass, but they could only go so far given the financial constraints and debt pitfalls of starting a company in today's economy.
Undeterred, Briggs visited with faculty and staff at RCARS, starting a chain of events that could have benefits beyond his own company, Envelop Media.
Bobby Ammerman, extension specialist at RCARS for the UK Department of Forestry, sat down with Ditsch several months ago to talk about ways the center could help reduce many of the upfront risks that go with starting a business, thereby helping to create jobs.
"Then Cary Briggs showed up with ideas for incorporating some interesting technology with a wood product," Ammerman said. "The lights sort of came on in our heads, and we thought, 'Yes, we can help him do this.' "
Briggs needed help designing and building a prototype to house his invention he calls a clarifier, an interactive glass box with far-reaching potential in museums, funeral homes, churches, and more.
Left to right:
Technician Doran Howard and Bobby Ammerman examine a prototype of a clarifier's wood case in the Wood Utilization Center in RCARS.
"We came to UK because we have a techie product, but we wanted it to have some warmth. With wood as part of the display case, we got that," Briggs said. "UK came through, allowing us to invest our limited resources in product marketability."
"We knew there needed to be a second step; what happens when he sells the product and he needs someone to build it?" Ammerman said. "We wanted to find an Eastern Kentucky entrepreneur and bring them into the mix. We knew we could train them at the wood center and allow them to build the first few items here to limit their risk."
They contacted John Marcum of Somerset, a professional who had taken some wood industry classes at the Wood Utilization Center at RCARS. Marcum was trying to start a business, but didn't have the resources to get it going.
"I think this is so exciting, and I believe it's a good opportunity to build a business," Marcum said. "The support and help I've had at the wood center will shelter me from the risk and start-up costs and make it easier to get loans from outside lenders."
It's a good example of how RCARS uses the region's natural resources in sustainable ways to create sustainable jobs in Eastern Kentucky.
"We've put together resources and people with expertise in wood and technology, and the result is a unique product that uses all that in one package," Ditsch said. "We want to extend this model to other things we do at RCARS including horticulture, animal science, food, and nutrition."
Ditsch hopes their efforts will spur the region's economy, create jobs, and make people want to buy Eastern Kentucky products. ◆