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Johnathan Gay: Eastern Kentucky screaming for an artisan economy … why not embrace it?


These days, there’s lots of talk about how to diversify the economy in Appalachia in the wake of the coal bust. But what are our options? It doesn’t appear that an industrial renaissance is going to hit the mountains anytime soon. A manufacturing economy seems ill suited for our region, lacking as it in major population centers and readily available, qualified workers in spades. At the other end of the spectrum is high tech. While I’ve witnessed tremendous promise on the part of a few tech-entrepreneurs in our region, it’s mostly in pockets: there’s just not enough high-tech activity in East Kentucky to build a regional economy around. So… what does that leave us?
 

This drawing from Kentucky Harper's Weekly in 1877, called The Moonshine Man of Kentucky, shows five scenes of the moonshining life. An artisan economy (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This drawing from Kentucky Harper’s Weekly in 1877, called The Moonshine Man of Kentucky, shows five scenes of the moonshining life. An artisan economy in Eastern Kentucky could include moonshine; planning is already under way in Floyd County to create ‘white lightning’ tours. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One answer may be an artisan economy. That is, an economy focused on creating niche, alternative-brand products, services and attractions based, in large part, on our culture, geography and heritage. It’s a strategy that’s currently being pursued in Portland, Ore. Why not here?
 

Consider this snippet from a blog on the artisan economy initiative: “Brew, food, fashion, bikes – what do these have in common? They are all part of Portland’s emerging artisan economy. Other cities have their bohemian districts, but Portland stands alone as an urban economy that has broadly embraced the artisan approach to living and working.”
 

The blog points out a number of characteristics of an artisan economy and ways in which it differs from the traditional economy.
 

Product qualities: An emphasis on the unique; authentic, not fake; locally distinct.
 

Worker lifestyle: Improvisational work, not routine; local situated knowledge; work as vocation, not just a job; follows rhythms of season and project; integrates work, and living space.
 

Organizational Structure: Small and medium scale enterprise; high worker autonomy; flexible specialization; clustered, collaborative firms; low barriers to entry (However, still protectable or defendable due to the uniqueness- not everyone can be “Appalachia Proud”).
 

Moral Economy: Price related to appreciation of inherent product quality; local, self-reliant enterprise.
 

These categories scream “Appalachia,” an area full of unique offerings, beautiful terrain, independent workers, small-scale enterprise and a near-reverent focus on staying put in the lands of our forefathers. In many ways, we’re already building an artisan economy.
 

 caption (Photo from FriendsDriftInn.com)

A celebration of food, such as promoted regularly on Joyce Pinson’s FriendsDriftInn.com site, would be a must for an artisan economy in Eastern Kentucky. (Photo from FriendsDriftInn.com)

Consider moonshine: in Floyd County there’s an effort afoot to create white lightening tours.
 

Or food: in Pike County, Joyce Pinson has become “a farm to table writer, TV personality, public speaker and heirloom gardener.” Pinson maintains a web site at FriendsDriftInn.com. She brags: “I live in a barn and cook up a storm. I am not a debutante. I have hot flashes. I garden in red high heels. I like fat rascals, tea and bourbon. Welcome to Friends Drift Inn!”
 

Or media: Kentucky Explorer magazine, for example, a Breathitt County publication, and Joel Brashear of Hyden who’s creating his own TV show after a stint with WYMT.
 

Or geography: Natural Bridge has become a mecca to rock climbers and a host of small businesses that have risen up to accommodate them. Later this year, one hearty local entrepreneur named Joe Bowen will hold the first ever half-marathon in the hills of Appalachia. (See RuggedRed.com.)
 

Our task should be to identify more people and projects like these, encourage them and make them strong – primarily by teaching them the techniques needed to be more successful entrepreneurs. The Kentucky Innovation Network is trying that already with moonshine. We recently arranged a free, one-day course at Louisville based Moonshine University for aspiring-shiners! No, I’m not making this up; we’re even planning some follow-up courses. (If you know someone who’d be interested, hit me up!)
 

Geographical features such as Natural Bridge are popular nationally as well as locally.

Geographical features such as Natural Bridge are popular nationally as well as locally and are a ‘natural’ selling point. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Something we should do in East Kentucky is to concentrate more on what an artisan economy in our area will look like. I can but vaguely see the potential; we need more thought leaders and prospective entrepreneurs engaged in this project.
 

Go back to that statement about Portland: “Brew, food, fashion, bikes – what do these have in common? They are all part of Portland’s emerging artisan economy. Other cities have their bohemian districts, but Portland stands alone as an urban economy that has broadly embraced the artisan approach to living and working.”
 

Rewrite that for Eastern Kentucky: “Moonshine, authentic recipes, mountain furniture, beautiful hills to escape into – what do these have in common? They are all part of Appalachian Kentucky’s emerging artisan economy. Cities have their bohemian districts, but Appalachia has a way of life that’s a living time capsule, and an economy that has thoroughly embraced the artisan approach to living and working.”
 

Summarizing: Instead of Brew to Bikes, anyone like Homebrew to Hikes?
 

1 jonathan gay

Johnathan Gay is an attorney and the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network or to get involved in entrepreneurial projects, click here.
 

A version of this originally appeared in the Floyd County Times where Gay writes a weekly column.


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