By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
HERNSHAW, W.Va. — Travis Troutman points to a fuzzy little lavender start planted next to a lump of coal, struggling to grow on an abandoned mine site near Kanawha State Forest.
“That’s a finite resource,” he says, indicating the black lump sitting on a mound of earth. “That plant right next to it is an infinite resource.”
The scraggly little lavender plant, maybe an inch tall, doesn’t look like much at the moment. It actually looks a little haggard, the result of more than 20 days in the hot sun without rain.
“That’s the crazy thing,” Troutman says. “You give them a little bit of water and they pop right back.”
Troutman is part of a fledgling development project called the Green Mining Model Business Program. Originally started with a Benedum Foundation grant and supported by funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the program has headquarters at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston and provides training in how to grow and care for lavender on an unused Kanawha County mine site owned by Andrew Jordon.
The idea behind the program is to retrain miners, veterans or anyone else who is interested in the growing, harvesting and marketing of lavender, while also finding uses for abandoned mines.
“There are vacant mine sites the size of the state of Delaware within West Virginia,” said Green Mining marketing coordinator Cody Richards.
Those behind the Green Mining project believe it could be the start of a huge lavender industry in West Virginia. Richards said essential oils are expected to be $40 billion industry by 2024, and said United States manufacturers currently import almost all of their lavender from other countries.
Green Mining project organizers think there’s no reason West Virginia can’t supply part of that demand.
But first they had to be sure lavender would grow on a mine site.
Green Mining training coordinator James Ross said they planted a test patch in a field on the mine site just to see if the plants would grow. They took the plants back to Green Mining’s lab in South Charleston and found out that the oils produced were better than just about anything lavender oil manufacturers had seen.
Ross said one manufacturer — Monq Therapeutic Air — told them they would take as much lavender as West Virginia can produce.
But Ross and Richards said ramping up to that scale will take several years. It usually takes about two years before a lavender plant to become mature enough to make its best oil, and Richards said it could be four or five years before the industry is mature enough to manufacture lavender products locally.
Of about 35 acres currently ready for planting, Ross said about 12 acres have been sown with lavender, much of it cuttings from older plants.
The Green Mining Model Business Program offers training classes for those looking for a primary or secondary career. Participants get a $10 an hour stipend while taking the classes, and once finished can either go plant their own lavender patches or lease property on the mine site.
Jenka Lockwood, a retired schoolteacher from Huntington, said she stumbled onto the training program while trying to figure out what to do for the next chapter of her life. Now she wants to grow lavender on her own.
“I’m starting in my yard,” she said. “I think I can get 130 plants in my yard. I’m hoping I can make money from all of the different things you can do with lavender.”
Ross said an acre of lavender can yield $30,000 to $50,000 a year for use in lavender oil. But there are other money-making uses for the plant, he said. The leaves can be used in sachets, and byproducts of oil production are useful in soaps and perfumes.
Then there’s agri-tourism, Ross said. Green Mining plans lavender festivals, tours and other public events.
“Can you imagine flying into Charleston and looking down on this entire mountain just covered in purple?” he asked.
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