When you picture the Appalachian Coalfields, you might think of those scenic photographs of mist rising from the mountains. But there are the less picturesque landscapes too — views of mountaintops that have been stripped away from coal mining. Imagine if these barren landscapes were covered with purple fields of lavender.

That change may be coming because some people in West Virginia think growing lavender could give the state’s struggling economy a boost.

The farm is located in Boone County, on land that looks like a moonscape, with parched, gray dirt, and jagged, blasted-off mountaintops in the distance.

A Reason to Stay in W.Va.

Donnie Facemyer is a laid-off coal miner. He helped strip this mountain, back when he was working for Pritchard Mining. “A year ago I would have laughed at you if they would have said they were gonna farm on a strip job,” Facemyer said. “Cause it’s all just shot rock. But these plants seem to be doing real good in it.”

LISTEN: “Turning Barren Strip Mines into Fields of Purple”

These lavender plants are little more than scrawny bushes now, barely a foot tall, but Facemyer is hopeful this mountaintop will soon be turned into fields of purple. He’s one of the farmers taking part in a new project launched by the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in Kanawha County to grow lavender on former strip mines. Turns out, the plants actually thrive in the dry rocky soil that surface mining leaves behind.

This job is what’s keeping Facemyer and his family from leaving the state.

“Me and my wife were going to, until we ran into this job, we were going south,” he said. “Just anything, we were gonna sell everything we owned; take off, start all over.”

WATCH: “Appalachian Innovators – Lavender Farming”

Money for Students to Learn Farming 

Like Facemyer, other new farmers are hoping the lavender industry can provide a steady source of income to support them in West Virginia.

It’s a new industry here in Appalachia, but the idea was enticing to a handful of people who signed up for a training class, even some who moved to West Virginia for the program. Some came from Texas, others from Ohio.

One family came from Florida. Debra Ritchie says a fellow veteran told her about the lavender project, and so she and her husband sold everything they owned and moved from the Sunshine State to the Mountain State.

“We moved up here to turn a new chapter in our lives,” Richie said.

Debra Ritchie, veteran with PTSD, with her therapy dog named Ranger. Debra and her husband Sky moved to West Virginia from Florida for the lavender project.
Photo: Janet Kunicki / WVPB

As part of the program, the Ritchies get paid an education stipend of $10 an hour for the 6-weeks they spend learning about lavender and how to grow it. The program is called Green Mining and it’s just getting started. Last year, it received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Power Initiative, which helped pay for salaries and students’ stipends.

Can They Make a Living Off Lavender Alone?

We reached out to more than a dozen lavender farmers across the United States, and each of them told a similar story — it’s a lot of fun and a great way to earn a small side income, but two farmers, both in Washington state, said they make a full-time living from lavender alone.

Shelly Keeney has a small lavender farm in her backyard in Huntington, West Virginia. It’s a peaceful place with wind chimes, and the scent of lavender wafts through the air.

“I have about 100 lavender plants, and I do fairly well, but as far as having a full time business, I would probably have to have, let’s say, 10-acres at least, to do just solely lavender,” Keeney said.

Shelly Kenney is a lavender farmer in Huntington, W.Va.
Photo: Janet Kunicki/ WVPB

The plants Keeney has keep her busy enough, especially since she also has a full-time job. Inside her garage, she has a small workshop. Fresh lavender hangs from the wooden beams to dry. Keeney has jams and jellies she sells at farmers markets.

“This one is a strawberry jam,” she said, “with just a hint of lavender. You don’t want to overpower anything you’re gonna eat for culinary purposes. This is great on scones and biscuits.”

She says she gets requests from farmers markets across West Virginia — more requests than she has time for. One product that’s in especially high demand is essential oil.

Examining the Potential for Essential Oil 

The coordinators for the Green Mining Lavender Project want to tap into the essential oil aromatherapy industry. too. But they’ll need to produce at least 2,000 gallons of oil to sell to the larger companies.

At the Green Mining headquarters in South Charleston, a former Dow Chemical coal-testing lab has been transformed into a distillation station for lavender.

Students working at the Green Mining work site in Boone County. Photo: Janet Kunicki / WVPR

Project Coordinator Mariana Sawyer says Green Mining is prepared to meet demand. They want Appalachia to be the new home for USA-sourced lavender oil.

“It hasn’t been that big of a crop in the U.S. before. Unless you buy locally grown or something that was made out of Washington, then it’s probably from overseas,” Sawyer said. “Because that’s where most of the lavender comes from. It hasn’t been that big of a crop in the U.S. before.”

W.Va. Economist: ‘We Need More Innovators’

Lavender could bring in some revenue to southern West Virginia, but it’s unlikely to bring back the thousands of coal jobs that have disappeared in the past decade.

West Virginia’s chief economist John Deskins says that although coal production has bounced back some, “it’s still far below what it was a few years ago. So ultimately in the state we desperately need to diversify our economic mix.”

Deskins says what the state’s economy desperately needs now is more innovators; people who will try out new business ideas. “You know cause nobody knows, for sure. People like me, or government officials, study the economy, we try to figure out what might have potential, what might not have potential — but ultimately, it’s up to an entrepreneur to experiment, and they’ll find what works and what doesn’t work.”

Not a 100 Percent Solution

Back up at the Boone County strip mine, the students in the program are busy planting baby lavender plants.

One man is drilling holes with an electric rototiller. Retired Army Officer James Ross is helping troubleshoot a problem the crew had where they accidentally planted in the wrong area. Now, they have to go back and replant the crop.

Lavender in the field. Photo: Janet Kunicki / WVPR

Ross is one of the program instructors. In the Army, he led missions for a battalion of 11,000 people. Now, he’s channeling that energy into teaching West Virginians how to farm.

“Have we got a 100 percent solution on helping the state’s economic problem? No, I’m not saying that. But it’s a good starting place,” Ross noted. “Taking this land that was deemed unusable and doing something good.”

Not everyone has stuck with the program. Last summer, 16 people signed up for the class, but only half completed it. The second course had 20 graduates.

Many of the trainees say they’ll grow lavender on a strip mine — especially if they are able to lease the land for cheap. The coordinators with the Green Mining Program say they’re applying for another federal grant to help them transition to a co-op model. If they succeed, the lavender farmers would be the owners of the entire business and operation within three years.

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This story is part of the Appalachian Innovators series, which is made possible with support from The Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission.