by Courtney Llewellyn

Berea, KY, population 15,000, sits right in the middle of the Bluegrass State. It is home to both an organization called Fahe and Grow Appalachia, a program run through Berea College. The two groups have similar missions because they are fighting the same fight – they are trying to rebuild one of the poorest regions of America.

Fahe is a bit more open-ended in its goals: “Fahe is on a mission to eliminate persistent poverty in Appalachia. Our unique collaborative model connects a network of local, regional and national leaders, all working together to uplift our nation’s rural places.”

Grow Appalachia is a bit more precise. “We focus on many levels of food security because we see food system development as an opportunity that crosses many sectors,” its mission states. “Our approach to food security in the region: Gardening resource distribution and technical assistance; agricultural curriculum and hands-on training; high tunnel infrastructure and protected growing systems; and economic development and beginning farmer assistance.” In short, its goal is to partner with communities throughout central Appalachia to combat food insecurity and malnutrition.

At the time of the writing of this story, the partial government shutdown of 2019 is well into its third week. News outlets reported food pantries were opened to federal workers who were going without their first paychecks of the new year. In Appalachian Kentucky, those who are underemployed or underpaid tend not to be so fortunate. Grow Appalachia came into existence to provide not only fresh food but new skills and sources of income to those who truly need them.

“To date, we have helped 6,000 families who haven’t grown food before. They have produced four million pounds of food so far. They have started 12 farmers markets,” said David Cooke, director of Grow Appalachia. “Our primary goal is to help a lot of small-time farmers get started. That’s why I started this program 10 years ago – to help people rebuild their independence, teach them new skills. It’s had a huge impact.”

According to Fahe and the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 2010-2014 Poverty Rate Report, the poverty rate in the combined Appalachian regions of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia was 19.7 percent, compared to 15.6 percent nationwide. Appalachian Kentucky has been dealing with a poverty rate of 25.4 percent, and a per capita income which is 20 percent lower on average than the rest of the country. Being able to afford fresh produce at the grocery store might not be a priority when you’re struggling to keep a roof over your head. That’s where the small farms – and the skills to farm them – come into play.

Cooke noted that Grow Appalachia will working with new growers in four states this year, but have been in six states in the past. They’ll be at 26 sites, but have been in up to 40 in the past. He happily reported that through this program, they’ve been creating about 100 jobs a year for the past 10 years. “Some places get really good at this and don’t need us anymore,” he said.

Grow Appalachia partners with small, rural nonprofits to get new gardens and growing centers up and running and manufactures and erects high tunnels for those looking to produce food for themselves or for market.

“We have been doing seven years of high tunnels,” Cooke said. “Pretty early in the program we saw the impact of climate change on farmers. Seasons are more unpredictable, and that can make it harder to grow what you need to grow. High tunnels can help ameliorate cold winters.”

High tunnels, which allow farmers to grow vegetables 12 months a year, were originally developed at the University of Kentucky about 50 years ago. Larger sized tunnels would be difficult to build in most of Kentucky, however, because “an acres of flat land is at a premium here,” Cooke said. “Smaller is better here. We refined and redesigned the concept. We have built 150 so far.”

Kayla Preston, the social enterprise manager for Grow Appalachia, and Terra Cash, the high tunnel assistant, build the high tunnels for the folks who live within 100 miles of Berea. Those who invest in a high tunnel are also provided with a production plan. For the most part, about half of the start-up cost for a high tunnel is paid for with EQIP funding from the USDA’s NRCS, with the remainder of the investment paid off in a couple of years, according to Cooke.

“The Grow Appalachia high tunnels work best for us. The smaller structures hold up better under the snow,” said Wayne Riley of London, KY. “The high tunnels have extended our growing season tremendously.”

Jann Knappage of David, KY, added, “The high tunnels have not only provided season extension, but they protected our crops from flooding and storm damage.”

“We have never had a single weather-related failure with our tunnels,” he boasted. “And we do offer free training videos on our website on how to install them. We’re looking to get the maximum quality output from small pieces of land.”

The testimonials from those who decided to take the leap and build their own high tunnels speak for themselves. John Stanley of Back to the Garden Farm in Waco, KY, said, “Our Grow Appalachia high tunnels have leveraged our ability to provide fresh, local produce year round.”

In addition to the funds raised from the sale of high tunnels, Grow Appalachia sells trucks’ worth of organic fertilizer created by their new farmers as well. The start-up funding for the program came from an unlikely source, though – John Paul DeJoria, best known as a co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair care products and the Patron Spirits Company.

Today, the program still receives some funding from DeJoria, along with money from the USDA, the states it works with and other private donors. USDA funds are now even being used to build field kitchens for communities to use.

“It’s a community economic driver,” Cooke said of Grow Appalachia. And 10 years in, it’s not slowing down.

“We’re expanding this year into four new counties in Eastern Kentucky. We’re doing more production planning,” he said. “We’d like to expand our high tunnel work, especially with people of color and women.”

Current Grow Appalachia partners include Over-the-Rhine People’s Garden, Magoffin County Extension, Wise County Extension, Williamson Health and Wellness Center, St. Vincent Mission, Scott Christian Care Center, Red Bird Mission, Step-by-Step Big Ugly, Rural Resources, Linwood Community Daycare, Pine Mountain Settlement School, Laurel County African American Heritage Center, Highland Educational Project, High Rocks, GreenHouse17, Cowan Community Center, Hindman Settlement School, Build It Up East TN, Glades Community Garden and Appalachian Sustainable Development.

To learn more about Grow Appalachia and its programs, visit