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Slowly, farms are cropping up on former strip mines
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

FLAT GAP, Ky. – Parts of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky have a history of underground mining that dates to the early 1800s. Coal, clay, limestone, gypsum, conglomerate, sand and gravel were mined underground in these states during the last 200 years.
The heyday of underground mining in these states occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more than 2,100 mines were in operation.
In the early 20th century, another form of mining hit these three states as well – coal surface mining. It all began in 1947 when profit-seeking operators introduced steam shovel technology to improve mine efficiency and this type of mining grew. This stripping of the land increasingly came into conflict with agriculture as a competing land use.
This generated opposition within farming communities and led to some of the first state regulatory legislation. In Boonville, Ind., for example, on the eve of World War I, farmers, coal miners and local businessmen began a campaign to stop strip mining by passage of a state law. Strip mining made fine farming land unfit for cultivation. By 1941, opposition to strip mining spread and Indiana became the second state (after West Virginia) to enact a law banning such strip mining.
For the next 50 years it was felt by many (mostly farmers) that the land could never return to a fertile ground that would support much agriculture of any kind. However, farmers ihave found that these one-time strip-mining hotspots can still be put to good use.
Tyler and Andrea Ferguson, of Flat Gap, own a farm in an area generally not considered fit for farming, as the land had previously been used for surface mining purposes. Their farm is in Johnson County, in the eastern part of the Bluegrass State and in the heart of the state’s rich coal mining industry. The Fergusons saw an opportunity in a place others might have missed.
“We have about 100 acres of farmland that is actually reclaimed strip mine land where we currently run 40 cows,” Tyler said. “We bought the land in 2008 and started clearing it to build a house and barn, and to get the pastures in shape.”
Ferguson also utilizes his grandmother’s nearby farm to cut hay, which is on another section of the same reclaimed strip mine.
“We grew up in this area and decent, available land is scarce, so where there was any flat land with grass someone else already had cows on it,” he said. “But we did find some of the coveted flat land in this area that had once been home to a surface mine.”
The land that now belongs to the Fergusons is referred to as “pre-law” land or land that did not fall under the regulation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which required coal companies to return strip mine land to pre-mining condition once surface mining had stopped.
Because the mining activities finished on this land before the law passed, it was left flat in an otherwise mountainous area, a fact that has worked well for re-growing the pastures, and has proven conducive for cattle production.
“People don’t often see how useful this land is after mining, once the pastures come back,” he said. “When we bought the farm, it was just brush and deer trails, so we began to work with it, clear a spot for the house, and turn it into our dream farm.”
The Fergusons have turned once-mined acreage into a workable, sustainable farm but it didn’t come without a lot of work.
“I started with five cows and an electric fence and I thought I was in the cattle business,” he said with a laugh. “It took me a few months to see that I had to re-group, so I sold everything I had, then started building a barn, putting up fences, dividing up pastures, and doing things the right way. It proved to be more expensive and slower than I would have liked, but it turned out to be the best thing. We’ve grown slowly but we have learned to get advice from others who have done the same thing.”
Ferguson credits the local extension office, Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer program, the local cattlemen’s association and university services for helping his farm become successful. He also lives near his parents, who are always willing to help around the farm.
“This farm is a perfect example of taking advantage of available resources,” he said. “This land had been dormant since the 1970s and I had passed it by for years without taking a look. But once I started an earnest search for farmland, I walked through it one day and saw the potential of what this land could be.”
Ferguson moved slowly and stayed away from farm debt and built a place that he hopes to pass on to future generations.
“I found ground that had been passed by for 30 years, but when we looked at this from a long-term perspective, we saw its potential. It’s turned into our dream farm,” he said.
While individual farmers like the Fergusons are finding and cultivating these one-time strip-mining locales, Ohio is taking action on reclaimed lands at the state level. For instance, a former 18,000-acre strip mine owned by American Electric Power was purchased by the state and is being revitalized and turned into an open place for hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor activities. Many of the lakes and ponds on the reclaimed land in Guernsey, Morgan, Noble and Muskingum counties were stocked with fish after mining in the area ceased.
In addition, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is accepting proposals to transform abandoned mine lands into useful land.
“Communities will now have the resources they need to transform potential hazards into beautiful, useful spaces,” ODNR Director Mary Mertz said. “These transformed areas will give people more safe places to work, bike and enjoy.”
Key project will be those aimed at lands adjacent to abandoned coal mine lands, polluted waters or communities impacted by historic coal production.
Many former surface strip mines are being transformed into solar farms. In Pilgrim, Ky., the development firm Savion Energy is planning to build the largest solar project in the state. This 200-megawatt solar farm will be built on a former mine in eastern Kentucky and will employ former coal workers as well as farmers in the area. It will rest on 1,200 acres of the old Martiki mine site in Martin County. The solar farm will be online by early 2024 and create 250 to 300 construction jobs.