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Helmick says WV needs to use its food opportunities

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For The State Journal

ROMNEY — West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick spent a full day in Hampshire County last week.

After crowning the first West Virginia Peach Festival king and queen, Helmick toured the county.

Helmick met with seven farmers who make up the Hampshire County Cattle Pool.

The pool was formed in 1999 and currently consists of eight participating farms managing a total of 900 cows.

The primary agricultural production system employed by each farm is the spring calving cow operation, in which the calves are sold in the fall.

Members told Helmick the pool was formed in response to the trend of Midwestern feedlot owners paying premium prices for full tractor-trailer load sized lots of calves. The primary purpose of the pool is to have large enough number of calves to be able to sort same sex, similarly sized calves into full tractor-trailer load lots.

Pool members told Helmick the cattle were sold out west and in Pennsylvania.

"Why can't we do this in West Virginia?" Helmick asked. He said a processing plant is needed in Hampshire County as an outlet for this industry.

"If you had a processing plant you would have a proven market here," Helmick said.

Helmick said $5 billion a year is spent by the state for food at prisons and schools.

"Approximately 6,000 prisoners get three meals a day," Helmick said. "In addition we spend between $100 and $115 million on out of state produce."

Helmick said the state is not exporting food but rather importing it.

The agriculture department's goal is for every county to produce food so it doesn't have to spend West Virginia money out of state. According to Helmick, "We're going to get there," he said. 

Farmers pointed out that supplying schools is difficult because of rules and regulations measuring out 2-ounce portions per child. Helmick said that would have to be looked in to.

One farmer said there are not enough staff in the school system to cook meals. He said everything is done from prepared products.

"There has to be a way to cook food in our West Virginia schools. We need to have a conference here to get that started," Helmick said.

The cattle pool grows high-quality cattle, which growers refer to as white table restaurant good meat.

Helmick referred to the sheep industry saying at its peak there were 800,000 sheep. Today there are only 30,000, he said.

"If we would have had a processing plant for sheep we may have been able to hold on to the 800,000," Helmick said.

Helmick said he would take the information back to Charleston, where he would form a committee.

"I'll get back to you on this right away.  I'll meet with corrections people and nutritional people. They can tell us what we can and can't do," Helmick said. "Hampshire County is a good place to start."

Helmick began his day with the opening of the first West Virginia Peach Festival in Romney.

Following the opening of the festival, Helmick toured Shanholtz Orchard, Gourmet Central and the Romney Marketplace Co-Op.

Festival organizers packed each day with activities. Many community organizations participated to raise money for their entities.

"Overall the festival was a successful event. I feel we accomplished our goals of helping promote an agricultural commodity business in our community and at the same time helped community organizations raise funds," Les Shoemaker, president of the CVB, which sponsored the festival.

"We revitalized something in this event that I think will only grow over the next several years to a bigger and better event."