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Residents fight to sustain communities with changing industries

States like Wisconsin and West Virginia are experiencing changes to the job industries that have sustained them for years.
Posted at 9:51 PM, Nov 10, 2021

Beekeeper James Scyphers is a lifelong West Virginian.

"I love these mountains," he said. "There's no other place I'd want to be"

So is beekeeper Randy Smith.

"When I was in the Navy, I couldn't wait to get back to West Virginia," Smith said. "I've been all over the world, and there's no place like West Virginia."

They know most people outside their state will likely never pass through it, but they preach for it. They fight for it even through a few buzzy boxes.

"It's just the most fascinating thing of anything I've ever fooled with," Scyphers said. 

Their backyards are bee yards. Both Scyphers and Smith produce hives of local honey.

"It's amazing how the queen is so dedicated to the beehive that she'll create other queens, knowing that one of them will actually kill her, because she's more concerned with the longevity of the hive," Smith said.

In West Virginia, one queen has reigned for decades over a dying hive.

"I grew up in Coal City," Smith said. "They call it Coal City because it's made mostly of mining families. It's not in its heyday anymore."

Smith worked in the coal industry his whole adult life. Scyphers did for years until work went away.

"When I got out of the mines in the late 80s, I went from 20 dollars an hour then – that was good money in the late 80s – to six dollars an hour," Scyphers said.

For so long in the Mountaineer State, coal attracted businesses. Businesses brought jobs. Jobs delivered steady incomes amidst stunning scenery.

"It's home to me, but it's just so run down now because most of the coal mines are gone now," Scyphers said. "And it's not the people's fault. It's location and the economy, mostly that."

Across the country, communities that thrived on one industry have been forced to change. Wisconsin is losing a dairy farm a day. The Carolinas used to hold so many jobs in textiles and clothing before machines took over. In West Virginia, coal mines employ a tenth of what they used to.

Mark Lilly oversees the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.

"I think it's difficult for some to let go of the past and to some extent, that's all of us," he said.

MATT PEARL: "Does this initiative have anything directly to do with coal?"

MARK LILLY: "No, no, I don't think so."

But they can't help but intersect. Their facility stands on an old summer camp for coal miners' children. Their mission – training beekeepers to produce natural honey – is a new lane in a state that needs them.

"The drawbacks to those regions are how inaccessible they are by road and the terrain they're located in, but that's what makes them so perfect for the opportunity of beekeeping," Lilly said. "With 5-7 years of experience, it’ll be easy for someone to earn 20-30,000 dollars a year – which might sound like a little bit, but if that’s more than your county’s average annual income, that's big."

PEARL: "Are there any overlaps between what it's like to work in a coal mine and what it's like to work out here?"

JAMES SCYPHERS: "Not at all. It's totally different."

James is retired now. So is Randy. Beekeeping, to them, is a hobby. For some, it may become a career. It will never remotely usurp the queen. Maybe that's OK.

"If we replace one piece of a large puzzle with ten pieces that are – in my opinion – better for the communities, that's fine," Lilly said. 

For so many in this state, leaving the place they love – the place that raised them – is not up for debate. The point is the fight to add to the pride they preach.

"We really don't attract the attention politically. Our numbers are so small, it really doesn't matter. So we've kind of learned, we have to take care of ourselves from within," Lilly said. "I think we need to look at what we have instead of complaining, 'Oh, we've been dealt lemons.' Like, we've got the world's best lemonade. Let's just take advantage of it."

This story was originally reported by Matt Pearl on