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Food Security Project in Appalachia Gets Reinforcements from USDA’s StrikeForce

Mark Walden with Grow Appalachia

By Christy Morgan, Program Analyst with NRCS 

USDA's StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative is a commitment to growing economies, increasing investments and utilizing the tools and technology already available to expand opportunities in poverty-stricken rural communities.

Grow Appalachia is also an organization focused on helping rural communities through their food security project focused on teaching people in Appalachia to grow as much of their own food as possible. With partnering local community organizations, Grow Appalachia has assisted with 91 community gardens in 39 counties, many of which are StrikeForce counties.

A challenge facing Appalachian communities is the limited amount of flat cropland. As part of their mission to help people grow more of their own food, Grow Appalachia designed a small high tunnel.  The structure gives growers an opportunity to take product to market earlier and later than other growers.  The high tunnel was well suited for the Appalachian locations where no two tracts are the same.

In 2012, Grow Appalachia heard about the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offering the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Mark Walden, Assistant Director for Grow Appalachia said, “We contacted NRCS because we had a real desire to build a quality high tunnel for the new and beginning farmers in our network – a functional tunnel able to stand up to environmental pressures.” With assistance from NRCS, Grow Appalachia made improvements to their structures and began a partnership with USDA.

With the USDA StrikeForce Initiative and programs like EQIP, NRCS is partnering with Grow Appalachia to reach even more people in communities where persistent poverty keeps fresh food off the dinner table. Through StrikeForce, USDA can leverage resources with partners and their own areas of expertise to expand opportunities in rural communities. 

Doug Stephens is a Grow Appalachia partner from McCreary County, Kentucky. An avid gardener himself, Doug was challenged by the lack of vegetable producers in the county.  He knew in order to encourage locally sourced produce, growers needed to be able to supply produce 11-12 months of the year instead of the typical 6 month growing season.

At the suggestion of Grow Appalachia, Doug contacted NRCS and decided he would lead by example.  He now has four small high tunnels, funded by NRCS and designed by Grow Appalachia, constructed on his farm.  The investment made by USDA-NRCS will be matched by Grow Appalachia in seed, supplies and technical support for production planning. “I am assured Doug will not be the only one to benefit from the seasonal high tunnels. His outreach efforts in the community will encourage other growers to start vegetable operations of their own,” Walden said. 

In London, Kentucky, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center (LCAAHC) Director Wayne Riles has developed a small farm inside the city limits – visible from Main Street.  Wayne also has a seasonal high tunnel funded by NRCS and designed by Grow Appalachia where he is producing food for a roadside market, an assisted living center, local food banks and other retail partners in the community.  The high visibility of the seasonal high tunnel makes the site a great educational tool for the city of London.  The USDA investment will be leveraged by Grow Appalachia and other community partners to create a larger impact on the region. 

John Paul Dejoria, CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila is the primary donor and co-founder of Grow Appalachia.