By T.L. HEADLEY, MBA, MAT, MA, BA
For the West Virginia Coal Association
CHARLESTON — Over the past several years, the West Virginia coal industry has quietly been partnering with the various groups to explore alternative uses for former surface mines. Some of those uses are fairly visible – airports, roadways, training centers for the military, the Boy Scouts National Jamboree facility at Summit-Bechtel, housing developments and industrial parks. However some of those partnerships are much less visible but may be more lucrative for the people of West Virginia in the future.
Among these partnerships is one with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture that explores farming and ranching uses for the former sites.
“We always knew that wildlife thrived on our former surface mines,” said West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. “Even while we are working or reclaiming, many of these sites are overrun by bear, deer, turkeys, wild ducks and other wildlife. They are drawn by the easy foraging for grasses and some of the predatory animals are drawn by other wildlife that they take as prey. It really is amazing to watch the process.”
Raney said some landowners have already taken that knowledge and developed cattle ranches and other farming opportunities on former surface mine land.
“Most people don’t even realize it,” Raney said. “But there is a growing initiative to turn former surface mines into cattle ranches and farms. Down in Logan County, for example, they are producing Black Angus cattle on a former surface mine in Cow Creek.”
Raney said that he was approached by West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick a little more than a year ago with an idea to look at developing industrial farms and agricultural facilities on some of the sites.
“That idea took root and we have been working with them on several ideas since,” Raney said. “One of them is beekeeping.”
Since April, West Virginia has test-run seven boxes of bees on one former surface mine. The state hopes to expand and offer veterans and displaced miners training and entrepreneurship opportunities. Kentucky had also started a beekeeping program at five sites in Eastern Kentucky. Factors like habitat loss and pesticide use have reduced U.S. honeybee populations and many honey producers are looking for ways to expand the nation’s honeybee population in order to rebuild the industry.
“While we have a long way to go, we think this is a very real opportunity for our state,” Raney said. “And we think it shows us yet another way the coal industry can work with local and state officials to provide the developable land needed for bringing these ideas to fruition. We are also excited to be working with the National Guard to provide opportunities for returning service men and women to start agricultural businesses and put others to work on these projects. I think we really have something here,” Raney said. “Now it is up to all of us to make it work.”