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Emerging Lane | Building Community in Appalachia

Lora Smith is breathing new life into old traditions

By Kathie Stamps

Lora Smith
Lora Smith

Lora Smith is a community builder. She helps organizations that help others through an impact fund she created within the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. The Appalachian Impact Fund is the first of its kind, investing for social impact to serve the 54 counties in Eastern Kentucky.

“Our fund makes grants to support nonprofits doing good work in the mountains and invests directly in communities through real estate acquisition and development,” she said.

AIF provides grants to organizations such as Grow Appalachia and Community Farm Alliance.

Smith co-founded the Appalachian Impact Fund with Louisville philanthropist Brook Smith (no relation) in 2016; the organization opened its doors in January 2017 in a former hardware store the fund purchased on Main Street in Hazard. The three-story building serves as headquarters for the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Appalachian Food Summit, Appalachian Arts Alliance and other nonprofits.

Members of the community are welcome to attend a lunchtime yoga class on Mondays. Co-working space and venue rental space will be available soon.

“Many of our small towns have issues with dilapidated buildings,” Smith said. “We’re also trying to kick off downtown revitalization and bring back our Main Streets, which are so important for livable thriving communities.”

Another of Smith’s passions is sustainable agriculture and regional food systems. She worked with three other organizers to start the Appalachian Food Summit in 2013. It was incubated through Grow Appalachia, an organization based in Berea, and receives organizational funds through the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. Smith co-chairs the Food Summit’s board of directors and helps plan regional gatherings, three so far, with a fourth scheduled for fall 2018, all focusing on the “foodways” of Appalachia.

“Foodways is a catchall term,” Smith said. “It denotes the study of what, why and how we eat – not just food, but how we grow food and prepare it, and the cultural meaning of food.”

The Appalachian Food Summit’s diverse membership of farmers, chefs, bloggers and writers, and scholars study the anthropology of food.

“I think that sustainable agriculture and local food businesses are incredibly important to creating a sense of place, supporting healthy communities with good food access, and can be a real economic driver in Kentucky,” Smith said.

She grew up in the railroad town of Corbin; her family has been in Whitley County for seven generations. Leaving home at 18 to attend New York University, where she focused on anthropology, Smith went on to do graduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studied folklore and documentaries there before coming home.

“I could never stay away too long from Kentucky and the mountains,” Smith said.

She gets to practice what she preaches about sustainable living practices at Big Switch Farm, a 120-acre organic homestead in Egypt, Ky., in Jackson County. She and her husband purchased the property in 2010. It’s a mountain farm, with only about three acres flat enough to farm on. They grow Appalachian “bloody butcher” corn, greasy beans and heirloom tomatoes for themselves and their two children, and friends who stop by.

“It’s community and culture that holds us together and sustains us during difficult times,” Smith said. “And it’s our unique natural and cultural assets that are creating an exciting and bright future in the mountains.”

She loves bringing people together through the Appalachian Impact Fund and her work in Appalachian foodways, all with an eye on strengthening the region.

“After all, when we talk about Appalachian transition and what we want to preserve and build on, we’re talking about the natural beauty of the mountains, the turn of a square dancer, the strike of a bow on an old fiddle tune, and the taste of shucky beans dried over the winter and served for a holiday meal.”