August 10, 2010

Eastern Kentucky cannot wait until the economy recovers to take advantage of the area’s rich opportunities. That’s part of the message Peter Hille gave to participants of a recent University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service-sponsored agritourism conference in West Liberty with participants from Elliott, Carter, Morgan, Wolfe and Rowan counties. 

 Hille, director of the Brushy Fork Institute in Berea, began the three-day conference by telling the crowd that things like education, energy, poverty, nutrition, public health and drug dependence are critical issues which need addressing even more in down economic times.

 “Kentucky lags behind the national economy by about 12 to 14 months,” he said. “That means that the recession is really just now getting here. We need to build on our county assets now and support local businesses and agencies already in our communities.”

 Hille explained that many people who usually travel to other states and countries for vacations are now staying closer to home. That gives Eastern Kentucky a prime opportunity to draw these people for their “staycations,” he said. 

 But that is not the only opportunity enterprising individuals have to turn the recession around in their communities. Hille encouraged the audience to visualize what the world of tomorrow will look like.

 “We have the lowest electric rates in the country right here in Kentucky,” he said. “That’s good in many ways, but we also use more energy per person than the national average… we waste it. When prices rise, we’ll feel it more than other places, and those who can least afford it, will feel it the most.”

 Recalling the gas price fluctuations, Hille pointed out that when gas prices went up so did food prices, but when gas prices came down, food prices did not. But instead of looking at the scenario in a negative light, Hille pointed out that even higher food prices can create an opportunity. 

 “The food system is dependent on the petroleum industry, but it gives us an opportunity to make local and organic foods more competitive,” he said. “So much of what we eat is not good for us. We can’t wait for the food industry to become more aware and healthy.”

 Hille went on to say that many basic skills such as gardening and canning have gone by the wayside, and there is a need for education in these areas to help people become more self-sustaining. 

 Issues like education, energy, poverty, nutrition, public health and drug dependence seem overwhelming on the surface, but Hille believes that many communities already have the resources to combat them and make the area stronger, even in down times.

 “Does anyone outside your community care about these things more than you do?” he asked. “You are the resource, and you cannot wait for someone else to do it.”

 Gwenda Adkins, UK family and consumer sciences extension agent in Elliott County, helped organize the conference, which she said is the beginning of a partnership across county lines to help build Kentucky’s economy. 

 “We had enough positive energy in that room (from the entrepreneurs who attended) to conquer the world – or at least these five counties (Elliott, Carter, Morgan, Wolfe and Rowan) in Kentucky,” she said.

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