Program provides rural families with gardening tips and tools
BIG UGLY, W.Va. -- Scott Butler is ready to disclose his family's secrets to his rural community.
Gardening secrets, that is.
Butler and his wife, Judy, are among 20 families who live along Big Ugly Creek Road and participate in Grow Appalachia, a charity that teaches rural people how to grow their own garden.
While some families have signed up to plant seeds and to till their own garden merely to learn how to do it, Butler, 49, wants to help those people. Other families know the right time to plant specific crops but they aren't willing to share their secrets, he said, and he doesn't understand why.
"There's a lot of people saying, 'I'm not giving up my secrets.' They think that a lot of the things they do are secrets but it ain't no secret how to grow food," Butler said. "As long as people aren't afraid that they're going to lose a family secret ... They're going to lose it if they take it with them. Then nobody will know it.
"Like Dad always told me, when you quit learning you might as well crawl in your pine box because you're dead."
Having families work together is one of the program's purposes, said David Cooke, director of Grow Appalachia for Berea College in Kentucky, and a Mingo County native.
Grow Appalachia is an outreach, educational, and service project of Berea College, Cooke said. John Paul DeJoria, co-founder and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems, funds it.
In its third year, Grow Appalachia blossomed when Tommy Callahan -- one of DeJoria's vice presidents who grew up in Kentucky -- told DeJoria about the economic struggles in most rural areas and wanted to do more, Cooke explained.
DeJoria knows about hard times, Cooke said, considering he grew up dirt poor in Los Angeles and was once homeless.
Today, DeJoria is worth an estimated $4.2 billion. He also owns Patron brand tequila.
"As soon as he started making money, he started giving it away," Cooke said.
The first year, DeJoria donated $150,000 to start Grow Appalachia, allowing four groups in Kentucky and Tennessee to grow about 120,000 pounds of food.
The program grew the next year so that seven nonprofit organizations -- including West Virginia's first location in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties at High Rocks Educational Foundation -- could grow gardens.
More than 200 families -- and nearly 700 people -- benefited from DeJoria's $200,000 donation. That impact covered 14 counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. The families grew more than 130,000 pounds of food last year, estimated at $1.53 per pound.
This year's $500,000 grant has sparked even more interest in the project. There are now 15 groups involved, including Lincoln County's Step by Step nonprofit, where Cooke served as board chairman.
The nonprofit is at the Big Ugly Community Center.
Esther Gray, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer serving with Step by Step, said the program benefits southern Lincoln County for several reasons.
Grow Appalachia provides mountain families with the literal tools needed to grow their own food. Families are given seeds, fertilizer, hand tools, soil testing tools, educational material and the use of a brand new community tiller.
Families also attend educational workshops on topics ranging from how to can foods for later use, save seeds, and prepare soil, Gray said.
"There are a lot of outcomes we expect, including access to fresh foods, fighting health problems that are prevalent in this area related to diet, and healthier cooking with the garden produce," Gray said. "Given the harder economic times, people are realizing they want to grow their own food to have the independence and economic independence so they're not dependent on the changing cost of food."
Gardening does save people a lot of money, Butler said. Many people buy food at the grocery that they don't really need and they end up throwing it away, he said. With gardening, people are able to freeze and can food for later use.
While gardeners will save money, they won't save much time, Butler said. Gardening is a lot of work. But in a state where nearly 33 percent of its residents are obese, getting West Virginians off the couch and working outside would be a positive move, Butler said.
Only 67 percent of the Mountain State's population is active, according to a United Health Foundation annual state-by-state health rankings study.
West Virginia ranked 49th in regular physical activity in 2011 and 48th for diabetes. Nearly 12 out of 100 West Virginians have diabetes, according to the study.
"The fact that these families are being outside now and engaged in physical activity. Let's face it -- it is exercise," Cooke said. "Research has proven repeatedly that folks who feel they have more control over their lives are healthier. The families that are gardening will replace the high-salt, high-fat, and high-sugar foods in their diet with vegetables. It's better food than most folks have access to and better food than a lot of folks can afford."
Annie Corathers said her family is excited to grow their first garden together, not only for the educational element but also to give their taste buds a treat. Her son, Tecumseh, 4, is a picky eater.
"My son is particular but if he's out there growing it, watering it and harvesting it, it'll make him more interested in it and trying it," Corathers said. "While you're growing the food and you see the work you put into it, it'll make you want to eat more of it."
Corathers, who helped her parents farm tobacco as a child, said Grow Appalachia would allow the family to grow corn, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons and other fruits and vegetables in their 7,000-square-foot garden. Her daughter, Pandra, 18, pitches in along with Annie's parents, Donald, 74, and Mary, 64.
Corathers looks forward to donating extra food and also selling it at a farmers market. The Big Ugly community doesn't have a farmers market, but residents want to create one, Gray said.
"We're strongly encouraging folks to get involved in the farmers market. They find that they not only like to grow food, but once they sell a little bit they realize, 'I got to do something I like to do and make money from it,'" Cooke said.
Butler isn't expecting to make much money from his 50-by-70-foot garden, but he said he's OK with that. He shares his family's 400 acres with nine other homes -- all family members, including aunts, uncles and his parents.
He signed up to help his neighbors, anyway.
"I've learned from the old times and I'd like to help anyone else who needs it. One tip, you can take a poor piece of ground and make it better by adding lime. Lime keeps your soil soft and kills the weeds," Butler said.
To learn more about Grow Appalachia, visit: http://www.berea.edu/appalachiancenter/growappalachia/default.asp.
Reach Megan Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5113.