The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 3, 2014

Helmick wants schools to purchase more homegrown food

CHARLESTON — Food costs have been eating the Deptartment of Education's lunch for years because almost all of the food purchased for schools comes from out of state.

The Commissioner of Agriculture wants to change that, and he thinks he can.

Walt Helmick 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.

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

The Deptartment of Education has only two requirements for the switch to state products, he 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 their yields.

He pointed out a Preston County farmer who 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's presentation was light on economic detail, but he did say that 5 to10 acres would be set aside at Lakin Correctional Center for Women in Mason County for a farming operation.

Helmick said the inmates who participate would be given up-to-date tools to farm the plot. “We're talking about modern agriculture equipment,” he said.

The commissioner said that he proposes to set aside more acreage in the western part of the state and in Randolph County for a farming operation for veterans.

Helmick said West Virginia is “not an entreprenurial state. We always have to work for somebody else,” he said.

That can change, he said, with agriculture, which he noted not many state residents take seriously as an industry.

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

The commissioner also wants to change attitudes about land that has been strip-mined and reclaim it for hog farms. The state has 105 accessible acres of reclaimed mines that have both water and rail access, he said.

His other pet project is deer farming, which he says can be a money-maker. Instead of having oversight by the Deptartment of Natural Resources, Helmick said deer farms should be managed by the Deptartment of Agriculture.

“We can move this industry forward and it should be with agriculture,” he said.

Helmick said the biggest deer farm is in Monroe County and that some deer farms allow hunts, while others are just meat-processing facilities.

West Virginia venison cannot be sold in the state, which Helmick thinks should change. He noted that he can buy venison at restaurants like the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown.

“It comes out of Texas,” he said. “And I lose my appetite when I see where it comes from.”

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