The Times West Virginian

February 9, 2014

State must not pass up lucrative chance with development of needed food products

Times West Virginian

— It’s obviously important for West Virginia to take full advantage of its resources.

Coal, natural gas and timber are some that quickly come to mind.

What about food?

Commissioner of Agri­culture Walt Helmick recently noted that the West Virginia Depart­ment of Education purchases almost all of the food for schools out of state.

He thinks that can be changed.

Helmick, The Associated Press reported, told the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development that West Virginia grows $663 million in farm products but consumes upwards of $7 billion. The big­gest customer is the school sys­tem at $100 million, he added.

That’s a number that can and should grow significantly.

“We want West Virginians spending their tax money on West Virginia products,” Hel­mick said.

What’s required is a change in attitude.

Helmick said one potato distributor in West Virginia currently has three railroad boxcars of potatoes shipped here each week from Idaho.

“Everybody knows the Idaho brand because they've branded it and they’ve done well with it throughout the years,” he said. “We don't have to look outside West Virginia because we have a $6 billion opportunity.”

The Department of Educa­tion has only two requirements for the switch to state products, Helmick said: comparable in price and comparable in quality.

The commissioner said some state farmers are making a profit on what they grow, but without access to the school system, they don’t have much incentive to increase.

A Preston County farmer, Helmick noted, grew 18 acres of potatoes and sold them at considerable profit. When Helmick asked him why he didn’t grow 36 acres of pota­toes, the farmer replied that he could sell only 18.

“We have to provide incen­tive,” Helmick said.

Helmick said the new Agri­culture School at West Virginia University will help the devel­opment of state food products, perhaps changing atti­tudes about farming.

Helmick has told legislators he wants to double production of food in West Virginia to more than $1 billion in a few years. He said it would not only "increase employment, but also the tax base in our state."

There are programs underway to encourage more farm production in West Virginia.

The Department of Agriculture, for instance, is planning a pilot project on 2,000 acres of farmland in Randolph County in a team effort with a horticulturist from West Virginia University.

The department is also making 40 acres of Mason County farmland available for lease to organizations and individuals for commercial vegetable and small fruit production.

Helmick suggests developing “non-traditional farming methods,” especially on some 150,000 acres of flat land throughout central and southern West Virginia.

He’s also calling on West Virginia to look at the pork industry to supplement successful poultry and beef operations.

Helmick noted that North Carolina now produces $2.5 billion annually in its pork industry and employs thousands of people, but pork farm operations can no longer obtain permits there.

He encouraged those farmers to "come to West Virginia, look at developing in southern West Virginia and see if we can't grow that industry here.”

We appreciate Helmick’s aggressive moves on a number of fronts to quickly boost food production in West Virginia. The potential for a handsome payback can’t be ignored.