Can apples grow on an abandoned mine site? That’s a question the West Virginia National Guard is spending more than $5 million to find out.
West Virginia was given $30 million in 2016 to invest in economic development projects across the state. The money came from the 2015 omnibus federal spending bill passed by Congress. There was a catch, though—groups would have to build their projects on former Abandoned Mine Land sites.
The idea was partly to spur new jobs in coal country, but also to speed up reclamation of mine sites. Some of the funding went to develop industrial parks, and $5.3 million went to agricultural projects, includuing an apple orchard project in Nicholas County.
Apples on Abandoned Mine Sites
Sergeant Major Darrel Sears, with the West Virginia National Guard (WVNG), manages the project on an abandoned mine site in Muddlety, in Nicholas County.
Behind an electric fence, rows of young apple trees are growing over a hillside.
"Some of it needs a little bit of help in lime and fertilizer and balance for the pH, but honestly almost every soil in West Virginia does," he said.
Sears said the majority of this property can be used to grow fruit trees. These 3,000 trees are expected to live about 30 years. They aren’t producing many apples yet, they’re only two years old. They’re also tiny, a type of dwarf apple tree that will need to be trellised.
The project is growing different varieties of apples, most of which are Golden Delicious, a variety of apple that was developed in West Virginia. They’re sweet, and Sears said that makes them great for more than just eating—the project has also attracted a major private investor, a producer of apple juice and apple cider vinegar.
"So, we already have a potential partner to develop further but it hasn’t been anything official," he said. "If they don’t come somebody else will."
If that type of private investment pans out, this orchard could eventually provide about 400 jobs, and $1.5 million in tax revenue for the state, according to an economic impact study West Virginia University conducted.
Sears and nine other employees work at this orchard now. By the end of next year, he said they’ll have planted 250,000 trees on this site.
Not everyone is convinced this plan is the best scenario. West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said he’d love to see the National Guard’s project succeed, but he has questions about their approach.
"Why did they choose juicing apples, when juicing apples are the lowest value of an apple that there is out there?" he said. "Why aren’t we going after table apples, and a processing plant to where we can cut them up to the sizes that our youth need in our schools?”
Using some of the apples for eating is still part of the WVNG’s plan, but they’re hoping that by bringing in a larger company, the project will have more long-term investment beyond the current grant cycle, which ends next year.
Another question Commissioner Leonhardt has is why is the National Guard investing in agriculture? Major General James A Hoyer, the man in charge of the WVNG, said their job is not only to deal with natural disasters, but also to help find ways to solve economic and environmental challenges.
He said that includes looking beyond coal for ways to use the land that’s been left behind by years of mining.
"I think our role, from a guard perspective, is to take that property and turn it into something for West Virginia’s future," he said.
If the Soil Fits
But is a mine site really a suitable place to grow an apple orchard?
"It all depends on the kind of soil you’ve got and its productivity potential," said Jeff Skousen, a professor of soil science at West Virginia University, and an expert in reclamation of mine sites. He estimates that there are about 500,000 to 600,000 acres of abandoned mine land sites in West Virginia.
Some have been reclaimed. Others have not.
"And I would guess that probably a fourth of that area might be suitable for farming," said Skousen.
Most of this abandoned mine land is still owned by mine companies or private landowners, but it could be developed into a post mining industry, like growing apples, if the soil is free of contaminants, and if there are enough nutrients to support farming. Skousen helped the WVNG select the site for their Nicholas County orchard, and he tested the soil.
"These soils aren’t toxic; there’s nothing wrong with them," he said. "They’re just fairly course … they don’t hold as much water and hold as many nutrients."
Skousen advised the WVNG to add some potting soil to the dirt to give more nutrients and to help break up the tough clay. He said he’s hopeful the trees will continue to thrive and produce, but it will be a few more years till they’ll know for sure if they were successful.
Clay County Failure
An earlier apple tree project the WVNG was involved in was successful. That site is located in Clay County, right along the Nicholas County line. Most, if not all, of the thousands of apple trees there have died. The ground appears dry, and there are pieces of coal shale in the dirt, nestled up against the dead trees.
This project was headed up by a non-profit called the Central Appalachia Empowerment Zone, and the West Virginia National Guard helped plant all the trees in 2015.
Hoyer with the WVNG said in the case of the Clay County project, the soil soil quality was adequate, rather the project lacked resources to manage the orchard after the trees were planted.
"The follow up on those trees is not like the follow up in the orchard that we have at Muddlety," he said.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the site where these apples were planted was mined by Greendale Coal, which had its permits revoked in the late '80s. The DEP said reclamation was later done on the soil, but there is an issue with acid mine drainage.
It’s not exactly clear if any of these environmental issues had anything to do with why the apple trees died. Connie Lupartus, executive director the Central Appalachia Empowerment Zone, said she was told by the DEP that the site would be appropriate to grow apples, and they did grow initially. Lupartus said they only received a little more than $20,000 for this pilot project, and if she had to do it over again, she would make sure she has workers in place to care for the trees once they were growing.
Jeff Skousen, the WVU soil scientist, said that, generally speaking, if the reclamation on a mine site wasn’t completed, then it’s probably not the ideal location to grow apple trees.
"So we do have to be careful about sites like that," he added.
For multiple reasons, Skousen said, the second orchard location in Muddlety is probably better suited for growing apples. That site was last mined in 1969, and though there is still some reclamation needed on the property, he’s hopeful that the soil and water quality will be able to support an orchard.
Bringing in Outside Perspective
The challenges in the first pilot project in Clay County did help the WVNG realize they needed some help.
They consulted with some fruit researchers at the Appalachia Fruit Research station in Kerneysville, West Virginia.
The reserachers are working with the WVNG to help find the apple varieties that grow the best on the Muddlety site. They’re also helping them grow some other fruit on this site.
"In our stone fruits we have a trait we call super sweet nectarines and peaches that have tremendous flavor profiles," said Chris Dardirck, a molecular biologist with the Appalachia Fruit Research Station.
They’re also working on finding a way to help the WVNG grow pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, and even a kiwi variety that was developed specifically for West Virginia.
Time Will Tell
Back up at the Muddlety site, Sergeant Sears said, in a generation from now, apples and other fruit trees could be one of the things covering these hillsides. He added he does think this project will be more successful than the Clay County project.
"And as far as them doing better here there than over there, it’s just a matter of testing to see," Sears said. "I mean, you don’t know until you get them going, but they appear at this point [to be] doing quite well here."
He said in about four years, we’ll know for sure. That’s when the 250,000 trees they are planting for this pilot project are expected to start producing apples.