The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 24, 2013

Getting green

The Register-Herald

— If enthusiasm gets a job done, then West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick surely has a leg up on most people.

Helmick spent some time in Raleigh County last week and if only one thing were clear, it is that he believes that at least part of a successful future for West Virginia lies in fields, hills and valleys of this state.

Speaking to Beckley Rotary, the first-year secretary said he is moving the Agriculture Department in a new direction — ”a whole lot different direction” — than it has been over the years.

During those years, agriculture had declined in West Virginia. Examples of that decline include a decrease from 800,000 sheep roaming our hillsides to just 30,000; today there is less than half of the 740,000 beef cows there were during agriculture’s peak.

While West Virginians consume in excess of $7 billion worth of food, less than $500 million is grown here. Helmick wants to increase that number by several billion dollars.

One way is to feed children in our schools with food produced in-state. That is already happening in some counties, including Fayette. His department is working with the state Department of Education to make that program more widespread.

Helmick doesn’t just want to throw some seeds at people and call them farmers. A few years will be spent figuring out what crops grow best here. Then locals will be taught about farming and how to make a career out of it.

That is smart. Giving people the tools they need to do a job right is important.

Farming also will be used to help with the rehabilitation of prison inmates, providing them a trade to take up after their release.

Helmick’s other plans include repairing mountaintop mining damage, but that is an area he won’t rush into without learning what is needed to do it right.

Another area in which he foresees big growth is in agritourism. A visit last week to a Cool Ridge farm that offers a corn maze, pumpkin patch and other activities for public participation showed the potential for that.

Helmick’s fresh ideas, his willingness to listen to fellow West Virginians’ take on those ideas — and his great enthusiasm which is tempered with caution — make us believe as well that we can have a bigger, better agrarian component to our state.

West Virginia could become way greener with Walt Helmick at agriculture’s helm.