Jon Council: An Appalachian Carpenter Organizing Across Political Divides

“Everyone needs to be able to turn on the tap and have clean water in their home”

Justin Perkins & Joel Bleifuss October 1, 2023

Over the past five years, Jon Council, 31, has made a home on land that he says was once “scorched earth.” In 2018, Council and his wife, Peden, purchased two-and-a-half acres “with a barn on it ” across the Watauga River, in Watauga County, North Carolina. The land, about 15 miles from the state university town of Boone, had been up for sale for nine years, says Council, and with invasive plants having taken hold, the previous owner had repeatedly sprayed pesticides and herbicides over the land to make it more marketable.

Council has now reforested about half of his land, with trees native to Appalachia like white pine thriving. He converted the barn into a one room cabin equipped with wood heat and a composting toilet. Speaking with him, it became clear that his commitment to a clean environment and sustainable housing has propelled Council to take action on those issues in his community. 

Nearly 40% of Watauga County’s housing is occupied by either seasonal residents in their second homes or tourists staying in Airbnb’s. Council is on the front line of threats facing local year-round residents, whether from the destruction of river habitat or the rising cost of housing. “When housing developments dump sewage into the Watauga River, I mean, that’s right on the river Jon’s at,” says Dalton George, the Western Regional Organizer for Down Home North Carolina, which is a member organization of the People’s Action network.

Council has become one of the moving forces behind the Watauga County chapter of Down Home North Carolina’s environmental working group. He also helped spearhead canvassing efforts to convince the Watauga County Board of Supervisors to pass minimum housing standards for the county. Says George, “Jon knows what it’s like to get up at five in the morning, and go and bust your tail, and then come home to take care of a little plot of land.”

Barn Raiser: How did you come to live in Watauga County? Are you from the area?

Council: I’ve lived in North Carolina my whole life. I grew up in the swamp in Columbus County, at the southeastern end of the state. It’s even more rural than it is here. I’ve been up here in the high country for almost a decade. I used to live one county over in Avery County. My grandfather had a cabin and 26 acres over there, and from the time I was a small child, I would go visit and thought this is where I would want to live. When I was in my mid-twenties, I made the jump and I’ve worked different jobs to keep myself here. I met my wife in 2017 and we bought our property here in 2018.

Barn Raiser: How would you describe the community you live in, its people and its political culture?

Council: My community outside of Boone is pretty small. I’ve got two next door neighbors and one house that I can see from my front yard.

Politically, most folks would say that we’re decidedly independent. We’ve seen a lot of polarization in the last few years, especially since the Trump presidency.

For the most part people here want to do their thing and they want you to be able to do your thing too. This has been a good thing as I’ve become active in the community. If you can say to someone, “Look this is beneficial to you. This is beneficial to all of your neighbors,” most people have the common sense to say, “Well, that’s what I’m for.”

Politically, Watauga County is a weird dichotomy, with a little over 50,000 people, 30,000 of which live in Boone. And Boone is progressive. There’s a university there, a liberal arts school with a large sustainable development program. As you get further out into the county, there are more conservative-leaning folks. It’s a very mixed purple. Watauga County is just as liable to go blue as it is to go red.

Things are interpersonally connected here. A lot of our friends are craftspeople. My wedding ring and my wife’s wedding ring were made by a friend, a woman we know in the community, which we traded for barter. There’s a lot of that. My wife and I also raise ducks, and we barter their eggs all spring, summer and fall for produce and other goods. We know people that are organic farmers in the area who sell produce locally at the farmer’s market or give produce to the local food bank.

Barn Raiser: What are the issues facing your community?

Council: I’m a member of the Watauga chapter of Down Home North Carolina. Right now, I’m on an environmental committee that is working to get some Inflation Reduction Act funds to rehabilitate a federally designated brownfield in Boone. An industrial plant closed, and the land was designated a brownfield, which means it’s so contaminated you can’t develop on it unless you meet certain requirements. We’re trying to get money from the Inflation Reduction Act to make it into a solar farm that would send energy to the municipal grid and to reduce our reliance on Duke Energy coal. So along with my colleagues at Down Home, we’re working to eventually bring that before the county commission and the town of Boone.

Maybe it will happen. If it does, I think we will be the first county in North Carolina to apply for IRA funds. I’m not 100% on that, but we’re going to be leading the way for some of these smaller, more rural counties.

Housing is also a huge issue, especially with the university. Boone is a town whose infrastructure is built for a town probably one-quarter its size. We’ve got 30,000 people there and we don’t know where to house them. We’re also in a place that’s got heavy tourist traffic at different times of the year with ski resorts and other recreation industries. We’ve seen a lot of single-family homes that have been turned into Airbnbs and short-term rentals, which makes it difficult for working class people, to find places that they can afford to live and work. Because we’re a pretty low-income community, we’ve seen how easy it is for outside interests with a lot of money to come in, buy up land, parcel it off and develop it, not for the people who live here, but for second homes or for short-term rentals for people that are living elsewhere.

To me, development is another kind of extractive industry, like coal mining in eastern Kentucky or West Virginia. The problem we face with housing is that we don’t have the infrastructure or workforce to maintain this kind of development, which drives up our seasonal population. We can’t accommodate this influx. It becomes taxing on hospitals, on grocery stores, on restaurants, on the basic infrastructure that we have. Single-family homes are not available to the local workforce but are used for short-term rentals, with ownership that does not even live in the area.

Everybody’s part of it. I’m working as a carpenter building houses that most people here could never afford. In some cases, people are working for folks that are actively driving them out of their homes, off of their family land or just out of where they want to be. But you got to do what you go to do to make a living. If that’s the kind of job it takes to buy your groceries at the end of the month, people don’t have any choice but to work in an industry that may be actively hurting them. The working class here has been hit pretty hard the past few years. We’ve known a lot of people that have had to move away.

Jon and Peden Council’s home, a converted barn in the valley of the Wautaga River in Wautagua County, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Jon Council)

Barn Raiser: How have those dynamics played out in the community?

Council: I’m big into environmental causes, but for me it’s not about altruism. I want to have clean water to drink. We’re on well water. We don’t have a county water system. I used to work for a golf course. When you look at what has to happen to the soil, what types of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides have to be applied to keep a golf course looking like a golf course, you see how there’s nowhere for all of those chemicals to go but into our local watershed. And if you’re working on a golf course, and you have similar environmental concerns as I do, then daily you’re living out a conflict of interest.

It’s not a recent problem. Christmas trees are a huge industry here. The Fraser fir, your classic Christmas tree, is only native in the Appalachian Mountains. But what happens when you get something like the balsam wooly adelgid, an invasive bug that has been eating the Fraser firs? For the past 30 years they’ve been spraying down chemicals on acres and acres of tree farm trees that’s going directly into the watershed, and as there’s no vegetative buffers or means of filtering that, these pesticides are going into the drinking water.

A lot of people are still on spring water, a gravity-fed spring box–a cistern you build around a creek that comes out of the mountain which is very susceptible to surface water runoff and to upstream pollution. But what if you’ve got a spring box and you’re living at 3,000 feet, and there’s a Christmas tree farm or a golf course or an apartment complex that is prone to septic overflow at 5,000 feet? Well, it’s ending up in your water.

And some of these older folks and lower income families are reliant on spring-fed water. They’re at the mercy of what we’re putting into the soil.

Barn Raiser: Can the county do anything about it?

Council: I don’t think so. We’ve incidents the past couple of years of septic and sewage overflow from a student housing development in Boone, and the corporate owners have been repeatedly hit with fines, and they just pay the fine and everything still goes back into the watershed. And then it happens again, and they pay the fine. It’s a hard thing to regulate because a lot of the land here is not zoned. It’s also hard to impose on those big businesses because they’re what’s fueling our local economy.

Barn Raiser: Are there any steps you or the community has taken to fight for some of these protections? Earlier you mentioned the value of autonomy as part of your community’s culture. How do you get people connected to take action on these sorts of issues?

Council: One of the most heartening things I’ve seen is people discovering they have common ground with someone else that they’ve been told is the enemy or the opposition. One of the ways you can make that happen is by saying, “Hey, this is affecting your water, too. This is affecting your air, too. And your soil quality.” Whatever issue we’re talking about, we first need to get people together at the table with others who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Everyone needs to be able to turn on the tap and have clean water in their home. Everyone needs the air that they breathe to be free of heavy metals and particulate matter. When we’re doing these types of campaigns, we need to talk about something that is beneficial to everyone and can bring together people of opposite ideological, political, cultural or class divisions to the table.

Barn Raiser: The issue of class sounds like a crucial factor of your organizing approach. How do class lines factor into your work, or play out historically in your area?

Council: Where I’m at, you have very clear class division. You have the working class who are working for these large corporations like Dollar General, Walmart or Home Depot that are based outside of the area.

Have you heard that Johnny Cash song, “I owe my soul to the company store”? It’s that kind of thing. You got folks out here who are living and working and struggling to get by. You’ve got working class people who are paving the way, they’re doing the work, but then you’ve got large, out-of-state corporations that are the profit holders. Meanwhile, housing costs go up, groceries go up, the cost of goods goes up, but wages here stay the same. Think of it: the median household income in this county is about $32,000 a year. At the same time, the median cost to buy a home in June was over $500,000. It’s a huge gap. You have people here who are basically in wage slavery and they’re forced to rent.

This year, the Watauga Chapter of the organization that I work with, Down Home North Carolina, pioneered a campaign to propose a minimum housing standard for the county. People are renting places that do not have running water or other necessities—places with sewage emptying into the yard or with no heat and broken windows in the cold mountain climate—things that you would imagine should be required to rent a home. Basically, there was no oversight, and people will live wherever they can afford to live. Again, we’re bringing people to the same table over a county-wide minimum housing standard: If you own a property, and you intend to rent it, the property has to meet certain standards. And that hasn’t been done here before.

Barn Raiser: What kind of opposition have you faced?

Council: Oh, there’s some people that are opposed to this, and it’s basically the people that are profiting off the exploitation of the land. They’re not the working-class people of the community. We had a huge grassroots support when we launched the minimum housing standard campaign. It’s in the hands of the county commissioners right now. But it’s not over.

Barn Raiser: Before our conversation, you had mentioned Wendell Berry as an influence in your life. What does his work mean to you?

Council: If you haven’t read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, you should sit down and read it. It was written in 1977, and it’s prophetic. So much of what he saw and predicted have come to pass.

Barn Raiser: What things would you say those are?

Council: You’ve got large corporate firms that are buying up larger and larger pieces of our land. And not just our agricultural land. We’re seeing big developments, places being bought up by, say, a firm in Florida and then parceled off and sold. So much of our means of production nowadays are happening elsewhere, outside of our communities and even the country.

Historically, small family-owned farms have been the backbone of communities like mine. There are holdouts here, so in one sense we’re seeing those small farms as they would have been 100 years ago. But we’ve also seen the large-scale changes that Berry was warning of in the 1970s. Let me give you an example. Right down the road from me there used to be a man named Ben Ward. He owned a sawmill where they milled local lumber. My barn is made from lumber that was milled at Ward’s mill, which was right down the road. Today, it’s much different. Now you go to someplace like Home Depot, you pick up lumber that’s being strip logged and clear cut in Oregon or Vancouver, Canada. Think about the amount of resources it takes to cut down a tree in Oregon and mill it and ship it not even halfway across the country, but all the way across the country. And then it’s being sold and assembled there. It’s unsustainable.

We’ve moved away from local means of production. But if the means of production can be kept local, you can provide economic stability to places that have been devastated by extraction and exploitation. That also means that the people that are producing goods and services have a vested interest in doing it sustainably. Because if you don’t do it sustainably, then you’re out of a job, and so are your neighbors.

It’s about having a vested interest in a place and in a community. And that just doesn’t happen when you’re a large company like Home Depot or Dollar General. They don’t have a vested interest in your community; they don’t care what kind of jobs or services they provide; they don’t care about what’s sustainable for the common good. All they care is that their store is maintaining a wide profit margin by pumping out cheap goods. It’s irresponsible economics.

Barn Raiser: What are some lessons you’ve learned when working with organizations like Down Home North Carolina? What would you say to other people who are facing similar challenges and trying to get their community involved in confronting those challenges?

Council: First of all, you’ve got more in common with your neighbors than you think. When you can get two people who believe that they are in opposition to one another and bring them to the table on an issue that both are passionate about, you can find there’s a lot more common ground than what we’ve been led to believe.  

In the past few years, social media has really contributed to a widening divide between people of differing political ideologies, such as the so-called culture war that we’re in right now. When you can talk to somebody face-to-face and say, “Hey, man, we share a watershed,” or, “We rely on this mom-and-pop business up here that’s in danger of being run out by outside corporate interests,” I think you find that people are willing to cooperate with one another. People don’t have to agree on everything. But if we take care of one another, especially within a small community like this, it benefits everyone.

People out here are passionate about this. Right? People in every single small community or rural place in the nation are working to make sure that their local economy stays viable, that people are getting the protections that they need, that they’re getting the services they need. People out there doing this. And if you can find those people and you’re of a similar mindset, then you can make a difference.

Working with Down Home, I’m astounded at the number of people who are coming to the table with ideas and with things that they see are going wrong. And nine times out of ten, somebody else in the group says, “Hey, I’ve dealt with that before. Here’s how we mitigated it.” And people will work hard for it.

My chapter of Down Home is starting a mutual aid working group that’s going to be a group of people who are ensuring that if you need housing or you need assistance or you need domestic violence support, we’re going to have a working group of people whose whole job is going to be connecting people to the resources to the assistance and support they need to be able to thrive. And that’s a big deal because this is not happening. It’s not happening at a federal level or at a state level. It happens person to person, through face-to-face conversation. If we’re holding each other accountable. And at the same time, doing everything that we can to promote the health and pursuit of happiness for another person. This is going on all the time. That’s where real change is, at the personal level.

Barn Raiser: What gives you hope?

Council: Things like reforesting my land gives me hope. I’m watching these trees and different species that are under threat coming up, and I know that within my lifetime they will not see any threat to their habitat. It gives me hope that a lot of people are coming to an awareness that if we don’t start thinking long-term, working towards sustainability, and getting more efficiency into our systems, that we’re going to run up against a brick wall soon. Like the folks that Barn Raiser has talked to in a couple of your interviews, folks who are tirelessly working towards making sure that everyone’s got the same deck of cards, the same chances to succeed. It’s really heartening, really heartening.

Justin Perkins

Justin Perkins is Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher and Board Clerk of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The son of a hog farmer, he grew up in Papillion, Neb., and got his start as a writer with his hometown newspaper the Papillion Times, The Daily Nebraskan, Rural America In These Times and In These Times. He has previous editorial experience at Prairie Schooner and Image.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

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