The Growing Appalachia Conference: From Sprout to Blossom

by Sister Kathy Curtis

Beverly May

In the spring of 2010, the Floyd County Chapter of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth presented their first Growing Appalachia Conference at the Jenny Wiley Convention Center in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.

I spoke to Beverly May, a founding member of the conference recently about how it came about.

“It was right after the cap and trade legislation didn’t pass and the coal industry began running their Friends of Coal campaign. The Floyd County chapter and KFTC in general were being portrayed as Public Enemy #1,” said May. “We were feeling demonized, marginalized and wanted to find some common ground to have conversations about working toward transition.”

May worked with fellow chapter member, Nathan Hall, who had recently returned to Floyd County after graduation from Berea College. Together, they wanted to help people who were Growing Appalachia Displayinterested in growing their own food or in using alternative forms of energy – Hall’s focus – and share ideas and hands-on information.

“We pretty much planned the first conference over two beers and a pizza and pitched it to the Chapter,” remembers May.

About 50 people – many non-KFTC members – came to the first conference where 7 workshops on agriculture, forestry, and alternative energy topics were presented.

May remembered a workshop that first year presented by Will Bowling of The Old Homeplace Farm in Clay County on rotational grazing.

“It opened my eyes to the possibility of growing a lot of food on a little land
with the help of the animals,” says May.

Another workshop that made a tangible difference to May that year was on residential solar power applications. May was so captivated with the idea of solar water heaters, she decided to install one in the house she was building. “It’s my kind of machine. You don’t have to do anything to it.”

8550415856_de539fd701_bIn 2011, Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry was the keynote speaker and many people “from off” came. Other speakers have been Anthony Flaccavento, noted sustainable agriculture expert, seed-saving guru Bill Best from Berea, and Martin Richards, Executive Director of Community Farm Alliance. The conference has grown each year, reaching 190 participants in 2014. While sticking to its initial focus of agriculture and alternative energy, in recent years, Growing Appalachia has offered workshops on community engagement and entrepreneurship.8549304641_c9a7a0cc77_b

Interestingly enough one of the hardest things to pull off is lunch. The conference planning team decided early on that a conference on growing food should be serving locally sourced food at lunch, but that can be difficult in eastern Kentucky in March. “That first year, lunch was horrible. I’m remembering nothing local, served on styrofoam” said May.

“We decided that if we were promoting local foods as an economic opportunity we really had to show it could be done.”

CodyIf comments from conference evaluations are any proof, lunches have really improved over the last few years.

Over the years several of the workshops have been panel session led by local farmers and small business owners as a way to lift up local initiatives that are succeeding. The topography of our region tends to keep people spread out from each other. The Growing Appalachia conference with its workshops, panels and networking opportunities offers a way for people to learn from each other.