A Fireside Chat With Land Betterment's Director & Chief Development Officer, Tom Sauve
Hello – I’m Stephanie Conzelman, Stakeholder Engagement Director with Land Betterment. The following is a continuation of my recent meetings with Land Betterment’s founders team. In this week’s Fireside Chat, I sat down with Tom Sauve, Director & Chief Development Officer. Throughout Tom’s 20-year career, he has been a leader and visionary for successful businesses throughout a wide range of industries.
Tom enthusiastically shared with me the whys and hows of Land Betterment’s formation. He also went into great depth about his favorite business pillar, Betterment Harvests. I think you will find this conversation eye-opening as well as inspirational.
Q: Can you share with me why Land Betterment was formed?
A: We started getting our feet wet in 2006 when we formed American Resources (Nasdaq:AREC). Around 2013-2015 there was a real turnover in the thermal coal industry resulting in widespread bankruptcies. This is when we really jumped in as we saw a great opportunity to acquire some good quality assets at reasonable prices. This gave us a large inventory in Appalachia and Central Virginia which we could reposition for a different dynamic.
A little history here on why we were able to acquire these coal mining assets. Many of the assts we purchased were from companies that were built on a very different model and in a different time – the 80s and 90s. At this time, the US energy policy was geared toward fossil fuel. Remember the Iran oil embargo. This is when the United States took a hard look at its own domestic energy and consequently really promoted coal. Coal was acceptable in the 80s and 90s but in the 2000s there was a huge dynamic shift away from coal as an energy source. This is when we took the opportunity to acquire and redefine how these assets were used.
Along the way we got to know the PEOPLE AND THE COMMUNITIES in ways that we never imagined and this is really the crux of Land Betterment. For 200 years coal was the dominant force that defined communities in Appalachia and Central Virginia. With the shift away from coal mining, there was a GAPING HOLE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WITH THE PEOPLE AND THE REGION. Coal mining was a generational dependance and with this shift away from it, there was a HUGE VOID IN THE REGION. THERE IS A HUGE POTENTIAL IN APPALACHIA AND CENTRAL VIRGINIA because these men and women are an amazing talent base! They simply are great people who excel at trouble shooting!
So we looked hard at this situation and began to think about ways to maximize the skills of this great workforce in industries other than coal mining. With the lack of employment and transitioning energy use, we knew we needed to find a way to transition new business and industry with the support of the state. That is Land Betterment!
Historically, other folks have tried to help this pool of workers, but instead of using their inherent skill sets, they tried to put them in roles that were inappropriate such as computer programmers. It’s like putting a square peg through a round hole. These folks want to work with their hands and are really great at trouble shooting. So we tackled this! These folks are thirsty for work and new ideas. With the support of the communities, the states, and local politicians we are filling the void and helping these folks diversify outside of traditional thermal coal mining.
Q: Being Authentic is at the core of Land Betterment. How has that been beneficial?
A: Most importantly, we are not absentee landlords. Both Land Betterment and American Resources have been present in the region working side-by-side to create jobs for years! Since we have been entrenched in this area for so long, we understand each community’s unique need. People in the US generally have the desire to be better themselves and their families, but the how and the what varies across all communities.
And by being present and getting to really know the communities, we have built trust. Here is a perfect example about how present we are on all our projects. About a month ago we working with a crew in Eko Pike to bring in fill dirt to grade the area. We are not just the President or Manager on site – we are actually there to help solve the problems. No we are not operating the dozers, but if allowed we would!
Q: What Land Betterment business pillar excites you the most - Betterment Harvests, eko Homes, Land Betterment Exchange - LBX, COAL Craft Spirits, Betterment Recycling, Betterment Metal Recovery, Pollinate?
A: Betterment Harvests (vertical farms)! We are focused on bringing technology into the region for indoor and vertical farming. So what you see in a field, we are moving indoors into a controlled environment. History has shown that you get better yields in a controlled environment where you can control the entire growth cycle. I really like this application for this region. This goes back to what we were speaking about earlier. How do you provide authentic solutions that fit the desires of the community? I know the folks in this area really like to work with their hands to create and tinker. Betterment Harvests is an immense opportunity for this region!
Additionally, the landscape is also well suited as it has been graded and is flat – perfect for this type of development. It is very usable land that can have large multi-acre greenhouses anywhere from 20-60+ acres. And geographically, Kentucky is well suited to reach many points of the US which reduces the carbon footprint and makes shipping more efficient and economical.
What also really excites me about our Betterment Harvests business pillar are the relationships we have developed. For example in Perry County Kentucky we have cultivated a relationship with the Perry County School district superintendent, Johnathan Jett. (I could ramble forever because I am so excited about all the opportunities with Jonathan!) The county school system in Eastern Kentucky holds a large amount of power/influence. In fact, they are the third largest employer in the region after coal and medical. Johnathan Jett is phenomenal and shares the same passions as Land Betterment – HELP THE COMMUNITYAND RE-INVENT THE COMMUNITY.
Through this relationship we have been introduced to the local community college – Hazard Technology Community College. Both the College and Land Betterment have the same vision and are moving together to make this happen. Our first project together is to develop a program to train people with a full skill set to include HAVAC, Electrical, Growing, Pest Control, Harvesting and Transportation and Maintenance. Upon graduation they will have all the skills required to work in vertical farms. Both Land Betterment and Jonathan see this is as a way to bring a novel industry into the region which could become an anchor for job opportunities. So basically, we are able to train a generation of indoor farmers which will be a sustainable industry and career path. It’s a seismic shift for this community!
Another project that I am really excited about is Betterment Harvest’s Busy Vertical Farm, which will be a first of its kind propagation hub centered in the Appalachia region. We purchased the former Willard Elementary School located in Perry County Kentucky back in April 2021. We are now in the final stages of preparing the building and its 3.7 acres to now be repurposed and revitalized into its Busy Vertical Farm; a state-of-the-art Ag-tech plant propagation facility. And similar to our collaboration with the community college, Johnathan Jett is equally committed to this project. This is another example of a positive outcome for the local community and region. The Busy Vertical Farm will be a huge step in creating a domestic, sustainable supply chain for the accelerating U.S. greenhouse industry by providing locally grown seedlings and will build on the growing Ag-tech momentum in the region.
Q: Is this a crowded space and how will Land Betterment differentiate itself?
A: Hmmmm- that is a great question. The space is expanding for sure! Indoor technical greenhouse farming with controlled systems is a relatively early-stage industry but growing rapidly. People are accepting of it and technology is really evolving. ApHarvest was the first to market in this area and made a big splash. What really is encouraging to us, is the interest of both state and local officials. I think that controlled indoor farming is so on point and would be successful without state and local support but with it, this industry is so well positioned to take off in eastern Kentucky! People are really interested in what Land Betterment is doing to transform this region and we are getting a lot of attention.
Historically indoor greenhouses were buying their seedlings in Canada. We have heard over and over that there is a need to have these seedling grown in the USA. US GROWERS WANT TO BUY FROM US PRODUCERS! What is so cool about this is we have multiple rooms in the school with 14 -foot ceilings. Seedlings are a great business for us because they do not need a lot of room to grow and in fact, we are stacking them to maximize space. Additionally, with the school having multiple rooms, we can keep the crops separate and contained which minimizes cross contamination.
Q: Tell me why Appalachia is so conveniently located for Betterment Harvests?
A: It is ideally located from a business perspective. This part of Kentucky accesses many metropolitan areas such as Chicago, St. Louis, Ohio as well as major cities on the East Coast – shipping hubs. We can create a “hub and spoke model.”
About Land Betterment Corporation
Land Betterment Corporation, an Indiana Benefit Corporation and Pending B-Corp, is an environmental solutions company focused on fostering a positive impact through upcycling former coal mining sites to create sustainable community development and job creation. The Company utilizes a complete solution-based lifecycle program to restore and rehabilitate the environment and revitalize communities in need of change and opportunity. Land Betterment accomplishes this by identifying un-reclaimed, run-down and neglected coal mining sites, fixing the environment through reclamation and remediation, and then repurposing the land to support a sustainable business that serves the community. Land Betterment firmly believes that with real solutions it is possible for restoration of impacted areas to live side-by-side long term employment, while building sustainable and safe surroundings for communities and our planet. Connect with the Company on LinkedIn Twitter and Facebook.
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