The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 22, 2014

Food for thought

The Register-Herald

— The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development has moved both quickly and decisively to eliminate the worst elements in the porous and haphazard loan program administered by the state Department of Agriculture.

Those problems include a loan program that appeared to have no rules for borrowers, or for repaying or monitoring loans that were made.

The substandard loans program was revealed in an audit ordered by Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick just after he took office in 2013.

Helmick ordered the troubled loan program suspended following the release of the audit pending new rules for borrowers.

The committee’s bill, which legislators expect Helmick to implement when completed, would establish:

— minimum requirements for loan committee members, including that they have agriculture or business loan experience

— prohibit committee members or their families from receiving loans

— minimum financial requirements for receiving loans

— policies for application, collection refinancing, interest rates and other aspects of the loan process

— advertising the loan program on the department’s website and in the Market Bulletin, the department’s print publication

 — consider transfer of the loan service to the State Treasurer’s Office

 — file an annual report with data concerning loans made, loans repaid, interest rates and delinquencies

— loans are for agriculture or agriculture-related purposes

These are long-needed reforms for the Agriculture Department and its loan program. And they are critical as the state moves forward to increase agricultural productivity and the marketing and sale of West Virginia farm products.

Helmick has set an aggressive goal for West Virginia producers, saying that according to federal studies, West Virginians spend approximately $7.1 billion annually on food products, yet the state only produces around $600 million worth of food products a year.

He believes that, with the right strategies, West Virginian agricultural producers can cut into that number significantly by producing more items for in-state consumption.

We think that is a worthwhile target, and will expand the scope of our economic development goals in West Virginia.

Cleaning up the loans mess is a necessary start to putting more West Virginia farm products on our tables.