by Angie Mullins
Shane Lucas has found what he loves to do. Now he hopes to make a living at it.
When he was laid off from the coal mine after 17 years and had to take a lower-paying highway construction job, he turned to farming his 29-acre piece of land to supplement his income.
Lucas, 40, who lives in the Cowan area of Letcher County, was recently called back to work at a coal mine in Harlan County, though he hadn’t started yet as of late October. While he is glad for the money and knows he can’t turn it down, he knows it’s not what he wants to do.
“If I could do anything in the world, this is what I’d be doing,” he said, gesturing toward his garden on a brilliant late fall afternoon.
He is proud that he was able to supplement his income this year through his farming. He says he made over $580 one particular Saturday morning at the Whitesburg Farmers’ Market. He sold approximately 1,600 pounds of tomatoes this season. If not for a blight, it would have been at least 4,500 pounds, he believes. He sold potatoes, onions, greens, kale, cabbage, corn and beans too.
When asked what the other miners did to make ends meet after the massive layoffs that rocked the Eastern Kentucky coalfields in 2013 and 2014, Lucas replied, “They left.”
Unwilling to join the outmigration that took so many of his co-workers hundreds of miles away to find work, Lucas dug in his heels and kept planting crops.
“It’s a lot harder work than running a piece of equipment on a mine,” he said. “But I love it.”
He was disappointed, though, that he rarely saw coal miners at the Farmers Market buying the healthy food and supporting the local farmers.
“It bothered me,” he said. “They think we’re ‘tree huggers’.”
He even dressed in his mining uniform when he rode through the Mountain Heritage Festival Parade in Whitesburg on a parade float with Grow Appalachia and Farmers Market volunteers. He says he did this to show miners and farmers they “don’t have to be against each other.”
For now, Lucas knows that he must accept the call to go back to the mines to support his wife and extended family that live with him on Lucas Farm, as his new sign calls his home.
However, he says he will miss spending so much time in his garden. Perhaps this is because more than just economic stress pushed him to expand his small garden from a hobby into a business.
He was taught to raise a garden by his dad, Richard Lucas, who died in January, 2014. Since his dad died, he has put in many more hours than ever before in the garden.
“He’s out here with me,” Lucas said. He even bought back his dad’s first tractor, a grey 1948 Ford, from a neighbor who had bought it from Lucas’s dad years ago. He found the right parts and has it running again, working the land his dad once helped him farm.
Lucas has a five-year plan to try to make a living farming. He has a small produce stand near his house that he wants to expand. He has considered getting his micro-processing license and Certified Market license to expand his offerings. He’s installed an efficient drip irrigation and fertilization system. He even plans to try growing 2,000 plugs of Shitake mushrooms next spring.
He has expanded his growing season by using a high tunnel type of greenhouse he built with help from a grant he was awarded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. There are still rows upon rows of tomatoes in the high tunnel not yet ripe in late October. Lucas expects to keep growing through December and he is working on a contract to supply vegetables such as broccoli to the local school system.
“I’ll just keep trying, “ he said.