Growing Appalachia: From the Ground Up

By Dorothy Weiss, Berea, Ky, 1/26/2021

Mark Walden on building stronger communities

Mark Walden
Mark Walden is a program manager for Grow Appalachia. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

“Food connects people and provides equity in communities and opens the doors for conversations.”

Grow Appalachia is an organization that focuses on cultivating a vibrant local food system in central Appalachia. Grow Appalachia partners with local organizations in communities to provide education to beginner farmers, help families start their own gardens, provide technical assistance for farming, and feed local communities through community kitchens and the Berea Kids Eat program. I spoke to Mark Walden who manages two programs for Grow Appalachia, educating beginner farmers, and high tunnel construction. In Covid fashion we spoke via zoom, while both situated in the town of Berea, Kentucky where the program is headquartered through Berea College. 

The children shown above are participating in a Kids Eat program activity that was held at the Boys and Girls Club of Bristol, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

“women are leading the charge in agriculture in our region and conferences”

Mark began his work with Grow Appalachia in 2012, after attempting to start a family farm with his wife. After the loss of his brother to cancer, Mark and his wife were seeking a life with access to healthy, chemical free foods, and minimal stress. However, farming turned out to be very demanding, with the multiple roles one must fill to create a successful business off of the land. So, while maintaining a garden to sustain their family, Mark started working for Grow Appalachia, to help foster healthy communities throughout the Appalachian region. He educates new farmers, especially on how to grow organic food. Grow Appalachia only supports organic products, so those who seek their help have to learn organic farming practices. This is intentional in not just creating fresh vegetables, but for having chemical free produce, where cancer is rampant. Mark comments how most people going through the farmer education program are from ages thirty to fifty, and mostly female saying, “women are leading the charge in agriculture in our region and conferences”. Mark also works with the Natural Resource Conservation Service through the USDA to provide high tunnels to farmers. He said that the application process was complicated and through the assistance of Berea College, Grow Appalachia was able to secure sufficient funding, demonstrating how seeking federal funding for farmers can be quite difficult. For the future of Grow Appalachia, Mark hopes to see more outreach to communities of color, seeing that the program predominantly addresses white folk. And as for the future of food systems in America, Mark hopes for, “vibrant local and regional food systems where healthy food is accessible to all. Food connects people and provides equity in communities and opens the doors for conversations.”

Grow Appalachia is one of the many programs seeking to address food insecurity and health issues in the Appalachia area. Through its work communities learn to see the power in their own self reliance. 

Above a Grow Appalachia program participant installs plastic on a hoop house. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

Published by will atwater

I'm a documentarian and my latest project is focused on the history of African Americans in agriculture.

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