Nestled among some of the steepest mountains in southern West Virginia, Wyoming County is weathering equally steep economic struggles.
Almost wholly reliant on a declining coal-mining industry, its population has been nearly halved since 1950, and many residents struggle to make ends meet.
When Arnold Simonse kept seeing the same families every month at the Itmann food pantry, he says he knew he had to find a way to give these people more.
With the help of West Virginia University Extension Service and nearly 500 chickens, more than 30 Wyoming County families now have a nutritious food source and a renewed feeling of hope and independence.
WVU Extension Service’s partnership with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul food pantry, located outside Pineville, West Virginia, began a little more than three years ago, when Simonse enlisted the help of Jodi Richmond, an agriculture and natural resources agent in Mercer County, to develop an educational backyard garden project for the pantry’s clients.
Though that project continues to help around 100 families, Simonse wanted to take the next step. And that’s where the chickens come in.
Simonse and Richmond recruited WVU Extension Service Poultry Specialist Joe Moritz, and together over the last two years, they’ve provided interested families with the education courses, building plans and materials, proper feed, and, most importantly, the baby chicks needed to start their own small, backyard poultry operation.
“With few jobs and severe poverty, a lot of folks around here feel helpless, so the focus of this project was really on our two-part goal,” Simonse said.
“The first part is obviously to produce eggs for these families. The second part, which is equally important, is to show folks that they are capable to doing and accomplishing something.”
When the team was brainstorming ideas of how to advance this project, chickens seemed to be the perfect fit for the terrain of the area, space and budget limitations, and skill level required.
“Wyoming County has a steep, mountainous terrain, so most of the people down here don’t have a lot of land suitable for livestock or even crop production,” Richmond said.
“But, it was really important to get some of the locals involved in a project that they could be responsible for and happy about every day."
Plus, the chickens would be laying eggs within a few short months, which Moritz says he knew would help keep participants interested in the project.
“This project is really no different than many projects we do throughout the state, helping people with small-scale poultry production. The main difference was that these people were starting from scratch,” Moritz said.
“I like to start with egg production because it’s easy and it provides almost instant gratification. You get to see results right away.”
Many families have become invested in the success of their chicken operations. Some sell their extra eggs to neighbors and local businesses or trade them for chicken feed, but one of the original project participants simply wants to help others.
Now a self-proclaimed chicken advocate, Lonnie McKinney and his family comprised one of 17 households to receive chickens during the first year of the project.
McKinney has since been able to grow his operation and provides the food pantry with more than a thousand eggs each month, but he says he also recognizes how this project has helped him now that he’s no longer able to work.
“I’ve worked really hard all my life. They made me quit work—I didn’t choose to—and this gives me the drive and the desire to get up each day,” McKinney said.
“I guess you’d call it therapy, but it does me good.”
The poultry project is entering its third year, and the team is looking forward to the next phase. Newly interested families in the area will have a chance to receive the same education and materials so they can raise their own chickens.
There also are opportunities for existing participants to work with Moritz and his team of graduate students to expand or diversify their operations.
“We put in a lot of work upfront to get the education program and materials ready for our participants, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” Moritz added.
“But after following up with the families and hearing about their experiences, they seem to be enjoying the project. They have generated self-confidence and are quite proud of their operations. We’re really excited about what’s next.”