LEONHARDT: Reclaiming Our Land With Lavender

We’re Making The Mountains Purple
By Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner Of Agriculture

Kent A. Leonhardt

It looks a bit like the landscape of the moon – rocky, arid, desolate. Jutting out of the soil, small, green plants with purple shoots dot the mountaintop. The former Four-Mile Mountain strip site in
Kanawha County is coming back to life – with lavender.

The Green Mining Model Business Project is the brainchild of West Virginia Regional Technology Park CEO Dr. Russell Kruzelock and Marina Sawyer. The two see the value of turning abandoned strip mines into something green and growing. Lavender, which thrives in rocky, sandy soil, is the perfect
crop. Plants, on average, mature and start producing market-quality shoots in 3-5 years. Those plants can live up to 15 years before they need replaced.

“The lavender actually grows here,” Sawyer, the project coordinator for Green Mining, points to the once-barren landscape now filled with row after row of green plants. “It’s a blessing and a half. We can reclaim mine sites in a synergistic way that not only makes it viable but sustainable and repeatable as well!”

A $210,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation, $1 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and in-kind services
from Prichard Mining and Penn Virginia, the owner of the property, set the project on its way. Green Mining offers a six-week, intensive program that puts students to work in the classroom, fields and labs, learning all they need to know to grow, produce and sell lavender on their own. The cost – not a dime.

“We actually pay the students to take the course,” explains Sawyer. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” What’s even crazier is the kind of money
lavender can fetch on the botanical market.

One-hundred acres of lavender, when harvested, brings upwards of $1 million. However, Sawyer stresses, growing lavender is not easy work and neither is the Green Mining program. “These folks come in every day. They go to class. They learn to grow lavender and process it. Then they put it in the ground themselves and nurture it. When it’s time to harvest, they do that as well. Then they sell it and reap the rewards,” says Sawyer.

The aim is to attract miners who lost their jobs in the coal industry. Sawyer, whose son-in-law suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD), says it’s also the perfect fit for veterans struggling with mental illness. The first class at Green Mining, a mix of miners, veterans and teenagers right out of high school, began their training in June.

Travis Troutman is a former Army intelligence officer from College Station, Texas. After his medical discharge earlier this year, he felt adrift. He hopes the program will give him direction.

“You can make a lot of money doing this. That’s the biggest benefit,” says Troutman. “There’s something to be said about using what’s been unusable for years, that’s been stripped away and taken down to nothing. We can bring it back. There’s a lot of opportunity here for potential job growth and job creation.”

A recent Kanawha County high school graduate, Zerique Hardy, ‘Z’ to his classmates, wants to make his own mark on the world. With jobs in short supply, he knows the program is a real opportunity for a brighter future.

“I really believe in this program. With me being as young as I am, why not get in on the ground level? Once you come up here and see it, it’s just breathtaking,” Hardy marvels. “You can see mountains for days! It really is wild and wonderful.”

Tammy Regis hails from Florida and spent the first part of her career as an Army combat medic serving a tour of duty in Iraq. She struggles with PTSD. “I’ve had a hard time integrating back into a corporate environment,” Regis explains “I was looking for a way that I could make some money being out in a setting exactly like this. I saw a Facebook post about this project and decided to
come up and see what it was all about.” She immediately fell in love with the concept and the place.

“When I stop talking, you can hear the birds and the total quiet,” she pauses, letting the wind pick up the sounds of chirping off in the distance. “There’s something very special about that. It’s really hard to find anymore.”

John Williams, of Charleston, is retired from state government. He attends class and works in the field alongside his teen-aged son. He hopes it will motivate his son to stick with the program. In the process, the Boone County native sees potential for his own future. “My brother owns property in Boone County. It would be wonderful to plant lavender and open a u-pick,” he muses.

Sawyer says that’s the beauty of the program. The students have the option of simply growing plants and selling them to fellow producers. They can harvest the lavender and sell it to companies like Procter and Gamble who use it for lotions and perfumes. Others, like Regis, want to get into the essential oil business and holistic healing. Sawyer also sees a different kind of business.

“Eventually this will be an agritourism site, along with the commercial plots, where people can come and get married, take painting classes, hold family reunions, stay at a B&B. It will be gorgeous!”

The beauty of it all, according to Sawyer, is the Green Mining project can be replicated. With dozens of old strip mines dotting the West Virginia landscape, it’s a business plan waiting for investors and workers to step up. Currently the project employs 37 full and part-time workers. The more Green Mining grows, the more spinoff jobs Sawyer says will come.

“I’m very passionate about this program and these people,” she points to her students. “We’re bringing back money to this area in a different way, and we’re making the mountains purple.”’

Semper fi!