Grit and resilience in narrow mountain hollows

Driving through the beautiful, green mountains of Eastern Kentucky, we stop the truck now and then to talk to local farmers.  Their joy, independence and persistence are infectious and inspiring.  Grit is the psychological equivalent of resilience.  A person with grit is able to survive and thrive through a variety of disturbances, similar to a resilient food system or community.  Individuals with grit arise in very dysfunctional families.  A farmer with grit may survive and thrive in a declining community.

Appalachian_Outlaws_about-EGrit and resilience depart company, however, when we look at sustainability beyond and outside the individual.  Resilient systems at such scales depend on qualities beyond the grit of individuals.

Resilience Project staff are on a research trip in central Appalachia.  We’ve met lots of farmers with grit and determination to develop systems which survive and thrive in the face of disturbance.  With some, however, the system will end with them.  Their children have moved on to other endeavors and they haven’t succeeded in recruiting their neighbors into their system. Their systems lack what ecologists call redundancy.  They are so independent their system will die when they do.

Other ecologically sound farmers here are tightly connected to their communities.  They are part of multigenerational families who are marketing and processing locally.  They use rotational grazing, integrated pest management, and build their soil organic matter.  They focus on creating healthy food for themselves and their community.

Such Eastern Kentucky families are a very small minority in the region. Other families have become dependent on government welfare checks, drugs and unhealthy foods.  Coal mining by large outside companies has supported a huge population which lacks land for locally organized productive enterprises.  Dark, narrow hollows are chock-a-block with trailers and ramshackle housing and no space for even a garden.

We are beginning to see how Eastern Kentucky can have resilient farms amidst low health and high poverty.  Two parallel and opposite cultures have diverged in Appalachia.  One with grit and resilience.  The other propped up by well-meaning charity.

These correlations are the opposite of what we have found in other regions.  In most places, high resilience of food systems is associated with good health and low poverty at the county level.  But all counties have pockets of lower health and higher poverty.  Maybe Eastern Kentucky is just an extreme version of many of our communities.  Resilient and dependent cultures seem to coexist in many places.

We’ll continue our observations for awhile, but the future looks steep and rocky here.  No matter how tough a seed, it needs at least a little soil to grow and reproduce.  Little good soil is available to expand the few resilient agricultural systems of Eastern Kentucky.  The culture of dependency is steep and rocky land on which to build resilient communities.  Especially when the superficially attractive culture of drugs and welfare and unhealthy foods is allowed to capture and enslave new generations.

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