The company — committed to sustainable agriculture and a truly inclusive approach for creating economic opportunity for the people of Boone County, West Virginia — has been growing lavender and raising bees on reclaimed coal mine soil since 2019.
Appalachian Botanical Co., based in Ashford, West Virginia, has been growing lavender and raising bees on reclaimed coal mine soil since 2019. It now produces lavender-infused essential oil, lip balm, sachets, sea salt, honey and other products with about 50 acres of lavender fields, 25 beehives and more than 45 employees. Since its inception, it has had two full harvests — the first in 2020.
The woman- and LGBTQ+-owned company has been recognized in Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program, which celebrates organizations that put people at the heart of their sustainability efforts. Shaw’s VP of Global Sustainability, Kellie Ballew, recently interviewed Appalachian Botanical founder and President Jocelyn Sheppard — the original grant writer for the venture who later took the helm — to learn more about creating new opportunities on a depleted former mine site. The company is committed to sustainable agriculture and a truly inclusive approach for creating economic opportunity for the people of Boone County, West Virginia.
Appalachian Botanical has tapped into a productive and exciting new use for reclaimed coal mine soil. Tell us about the continuing discoveries about how the soil works for lavender and related endeavors such as honey.
JS: You want to know it’s going to work before you actually get into it. A couple of years before I started the company, I was part of a federally funded demonstration project that showed lavender could be grown successfully on mine land with poor soil. Why? Lavender needs just a small amount of nutrients, doesn’t need a lot of water, and needs good drainage. So reclaimed soil is a good fit. It has limited nutrients and it’s rocky, which helps with drainage.
We’ve had lab testing done on the soil, on the plants and on the lavender essential oil that came out of the plants — and it’s all very good. It’s a healthy environment in which to grow. That also means that these healthy plants are a source of food for the bees that have been producing four varieties of honey.
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Image credit: Appalachian Botanical
Any lessons learned with soil readiness for this project?
JS: An expensive lesson learned is that it requires a bulldozer to come in and do some grading and windrow building to get things lined up and ready to plant. This is partly because of the need to have good drainage. We plant the lavender in mounds about 12 inches high. Because the soil is both rocky and very compacted, we found we needed to rent a bulldozer and have an operator come in and do that for us.
We need to follow what we already know — otherwise, we’ll regret it. For example, space the plants property and don’t over-water them, even though it’s a temptation in the hot weather. A lavender plant is kind of finicky. For the first 30 days that it’s starting in the ground, you have to keep a close eye on it and water it possibly as much as every day, depending on conditions. Other than that, leave it alone. After the 30 days, when it’s established, the only reason we would water is if we had severe weather or drought conditions.
Your company is also helping put people in rural West Virginia back to work in a new industry. You have hired former coal mine workers and even mentioned opportunities for second-chance employment. What unique challenges and advantages have you found with your current and potential workforce?
JS: One advantage for us is that we are willing to give people a second-chance type of job. We’re not one of those check-the-box type companies. This gives us an opportunity to hire people who might get overlooked by other employers. The workers have appreciated that and our efforts to connect them with other supporting services they need. We can connect workers who are in recovery or were formerly incarcerated to trained counselors or other types of services, if needed. We found that we’re most effective when we connect with the professionals who are already providing these services in the community.
Sometimes it works out well; and other times, the person is not quite [ready to] handle the responsibility and pressure of a job. Sometimes a worker needs to take a step back, get the help they need; and then, we can see about getting them back.
It’s an advantage that we can employ people who didn’t complete their high school degree. At the same time, it’s a challenge to find people with specific post-secondary training and certifications.
Have some of your employees been former coal miners?
JS: A lot of the coal mine workers who were displaced over the last 10-15 years with the downturn in the economy have passed away; others have retired or otherwise aged out or left the workforce. We are often dealing with the second or third generation. Some have worked in a coal mine, or they’ve worked for businesses that support coal-mining companies. We do have that connection. It’s cool every once in a while when one of our workers says, “I used to work here and boy, does it look different!”
There’s a lot in the works — including new products and the pursuit of organic certifications. What is your current focus?
JS: We are continuing to pursue the organic certifications — that will take some more time. We really want to scale up our sales, and that would include extending our most popular product lines. We’re looking for distributors.
We also have some private-label, third-party fulfillment capabilities; so, we are looking for customers who want those services, as well. Especially in the botanical arena, we can make things for other people; and not necessarily just lavender — they could supply the ingredients and the labels; and we can mix it, make it, label, bottle and ship it. That’s a nice thing to be able to do when we have that extra capacity, while we are still building up the capacity for our own products. I think in the near term, we see third-party contracts as a big area of growth. Right now, we are committed to using only the lavender products that we grow ourselves and continuing to add acreage every year. In the meantime, we want to keep everybody busy; so, we are willing to take on those other contracts.
Image credit: Appalachian Botanical
What do you see as being the biggest challenges for growth and profitability?
JS: There’s always the literal challenge of growth, because it’s agriculture; and stuff will happen when we’ve had extreme weather. We’ve lost some plants due to ups and downs in temperature and rainfall. On the other hand, we’ve also seen some additional blooming of our plants with the extreme weather we are having these days.
Growing lavender at scale is very capital- and labor-intensive. Only this year, now that our plants are large and sturdy and mature enough, can we look at mechanizing some of the operations we’ve previously had to do entirely by hand. It won’t be so costly because it will end up paying for itself. We’ve benefited from support from the US Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. There are opportunities for some low-interest loans and other ways to help us handle that part of scaling up.
On the market side, companies of all sizes are launching thousands of new products every year into the aromatherapy, body care and self-care space. It’s a very crowded field, and it’s a real challenge to stand out. I am grateful that we have the awesome story and mission that we do, because it has helped us stand out with potential distributors and retailers we have approached so far.
What have been the biggest rewards?
JS: It’s delightful to share our story and watch people light up. I have not heard anyone say that it is a bad idea or that it will never work. They may ask how long it will take to be profitable, and we are still working on that. Meanwhile, it’s amazing to stand on the farm amidst 50 acres of lavender in bloom, surrounded by green hills, and remember you are standing on a former strip mine. It’s so rewarding to take that idle land and transform it into a beautiful and productive place.
Likewise, it can be strange to think that some of our best workers are in recovery, were formerly incarcerated, or otherwise had to overcome some serious challenges to be able to get and keep these jobs. The biggest reward is to provide opportunities for a place and people to thrive — and then to watch it happen. It’s pretty amazing.
This article is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. Each of the 10 organizations selected for this year’s recognition program is a leader in its own right and offers something from which we can all learn about putting people at the heart of sustainability. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.