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Ag Commissioner Walt Helmick going whole hog to develop economic opportunities for agriculture

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Walt Helmick, West Virginia’s new Department of Agriculture commissioner, passed out freshly roasted ears of corn during a recent event at the Capitol Complex in Charleston. Walt Helmick, West Virginia’s new Department of Agriculture commissioner, passed out freshly roasted ears of corn during a recent event at the Capitol Complex in Charleston.

According to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, West Virginians consume $7.1 billion in food product, but less than $1 billion of it comes from West Virginia producers.

"We're importing in excess of $6 billion in food," Walt Helmick, state agriculture commissioner, said recently. "That is a significant problem. 

"We want West Virginia land to be used by West Virginians to grow a product that West Virginians will consume."

Helmick, with less than a year in the commissioner's office under his belt, is tackling the cause head on.

"I don't see it as a problem that can't be solved," he said. "We know deep down it will take a lot to change that approach and that mindset. Simply, we fall short $6 billion in feeding ourselves. The opportunity is now."

The hills and valleys that flow about the Mountain State can make growing food in West Virginia more challenging than Midwestern states. 

"It doesn't take huge amounts of land, with modern technology, to produce a significant amount of food," Helmick insists. "So we're out there pushing our message. 

"Agriculture can be our biggest business in West Virginia. It can solve a lot of problems — health problems and economic problems."

Helmick assures that his office has been researching, planning and talking to a number of agriculturally successful states for input from their experts. 

"Other states have been generating the food and the employment. What do we need to do to change?" Helmick asked. "We're not uncomfortable at all, asking North Dakota about honey, or asking North Carolina about sweet potatoes. Idaho has 200,000 less people than we do in West Virginia. But they produce about 30 percent of all white potatoes. Every county in West Virginia has a potential. We intend to develop those potentials."

Helmick points out that West Virginians fed themselves at one time.

"Think about it. During the Depression, there wasn't any Walmarts or grocery stores," he said. "The only thing you really bought (from outside) was coffee, salt, pepper and sugar. You grew your own hogs, beef and sheep. 

"We once had 800,000 sheep in West Virginia at our peak. Today we have 30,000." 

Teamwork required

Experts within the state also are being utilized.

"We will work diligently with the agriculture programs at West Virginia University and West Virginia State University to look at all of West Virginia to see where we can grow the products that we are now importing," Helmick said. "We're going to push economic development out of the agriculture department with the state's economic development office. We are going to be promoting it and developing it.

"We're going to be showing West Virginia growers that there's a good living in agriculture. They can become independent as private entrepreneurs. We'll pursue this diligently."

Helmick promises a roundtable approach.

"We embrace talking to the West Virginia Coal Association. They have access to huge acres of level or semi-level land. What can we do on that land?" he said. "We will bring in (Coal Association President) Bill Raney. He has been a supporter with us.

"It's clean, wholesome living, out in the mountain air of West Virginia," he added. "There's going to be a huge number of people that want to do that. We feel very good about it."

Helmick said the problem is the players haven't been able to network enough to make a living, so he wants to bring back the true agriculture concept. "There's an occupation that never goes away — it's called agriculture."

Education will aid the movement, allowing the youth of West Virginia to consider careers in agriculture.

"We have 45 counties with vocational agriculture programs in the state of West Virginia, operated by the (West Virginia) Department of Education," Helmick said. "And there's 70 to 80 Future Farmers of America programs in West Virginia. We will work with the Department of Education through vo-ag to show them what we're doing and how we can mesh our program with their program. We want to promote agriculture to the next generation. We have a significant amount of customers — ourselves." 

‘We can make a significant industry'

"We have a huge industry that will be around forever," Helmick said of the promise that lies within agriculture. "With the right approach, we can take it to another level. We can grow those products in West Virginia There are a number of potentials."

But how will it happen?

"The structuring is the difficult part — how do we grow the product in West Virginia and how do we deliver it to the customer base?" Helmick said. "We're in the process of changing the way we do things here to put people in place that can put that structure together.  Hopefully we can do it the first year in operation."

Buzzing with opportunity

Just one of the ideas for increasing the food industry in West Virginia is the production of honey.

"The bee industry already has sites in West Virginia on reclaimed mine lands," Helmick explained. "The coal companies have embraced it. They want to see a positive come out of reclaimed land. That's one step. 

"We'll continue to look at those sites to analyze the land in those counties."

A recent pollinator conference in South Charleston provided insight.

"There is a project we're working on at a Mingo County site," said Carl "Butch" Antolini, West Virginia Department of Agriculture communications director. "We're also working with the Division of Highways and the USDA to develop other pollinator habitats. Agriculture needs bees. But there's also other pollinators, other insects. Commissioner Helmick and Judge (Dan) O'Hanlon really got the ball rolling. The judge is very active with the bee keepers and wants to push this issue. 

"The Department of Highways has agreed to get involved and develop habitats on slopes along highway property," Antolini continued. "They'll plant certain clover. We have a test site on I-64 right now. 

"The Department of Highways has been very receptive. They want to help. They see the possibilities of providing jobs and offering a quality food product."

Working with the DOH is a win-win situation, Antolini said.

"It saves the DOH money because they don't mow as much and they can let that habitat grow," Antolini added. "When you look at some of the major honey growers in the nation — No. 1 is North Dakota. They grow about 65 times as much as West Virginia does. 

"What's the difference in the approach of growing honey? That's the key. We're looking to states that are doing it right."

Fresh quality products

The movement in the food industry of late has been to fresh and local products. Farm-to-table is a hot term that often is used.

"The quality and freshness of the products is foremost in people's minds," Helmick said. "It's a buzzword across the country, but it's also shown to be a real boost to the health of consumers. 

"We know that we're in the right place at the right time to make a difference." 

With the youth of West Virginia seemingly always near the top of every unhealthy statistic, providing healthy lunch options during the school year will be high on the commissioner's list.

"We're working with various school systems already," Helmick said. "They're very interested in quality products for their students and they want a West Virginia product. 

The prison population is another group that could be fed cheaper, and locally.

"We have a contract with the West Virginia Division of Corrections," explained Helmick. "We have land adjacent to those facilities, like Huttonsville, Moundsville and other locations. We can provide food for them. We have 10,000 acres of land. 

"We provide potatoes — we planted six acres this year, which produced a couple thousand bushels, a blip on the screen; beef, which is kind of significant, but there's much room for improvement there too, and pork."

Purchase orders for food for prisons have not automatically been sent to West Virginia growers, nor has priority been given for West Virginia farmers, Helmick stated. 

"We are currently buying in excess of 100,000 pounds of pork in West Virginia each year to feed the inmates in our state prisons and that doesn't include what is being purchased in the regional jails and juvenile facilities," Helmick said. "That's a significant expenditure. Those hogs are now being purchased from out of state. we're buying many of them from Ohio, and I am adamantly opposed to doing that. Those taxpayer dollars that are being used to house and feed our inmates need to be spent here in West Virginia so that's why we are looking at growing and processing our own hogs." 

Recent reports of a hog farm location in the southern part of the state are not confirmed, but plans are moving forward to accomplish that goal, along with a northern location.

"We are looking at sites in southern West Virginia to serve as a location for establishing a small test plot for a commercial growing site for pork, and Mingo County is one of the places we have explored," Antolini said. "Mr. Steve Kominar, with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, has been in the process of checking on sites for such a development, and we have talked with him about that.

"At the present time we are still in the process of looking at locations, including reclaimed mountain top removal sites in southern West Virginia, for both a hog farm and potential sites for developing bee and pollinator habitats. We also will be considering locations in northern West Virginia for similar operations in the future."