The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 7, 2013

Ag commissioner pushing for control of deer farming, more home-grown food

BECKLEY — In a time of rapidly growing populations and increasing prices for food, food security has become an large issue looming over the Mountain State.

According to State Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, West Virginia needs to make a shift toward growing its agricultural economy and capitalizing on its own resources, rather than importing so much food from other states.

He delivered that message at the West Virginia Food Policy Council meeting Wednesday at Tamarack.

“Here in West Virginia, we consume a little bit more than $7 billion worth of food product each year. However, we find ourselves in a position where we grow very little of that — less than $1 billion, in fact.

“That’s $6 billion that could very well be kept within West Virginia,” Helmick said. “What an opportunity we have.”

In an attempt to capitalize on the large opportunity, Helmick said that in 2013, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture is taking a new approach to the problem.

While 53 percent of the state’s food economy comes from poultry farming, Helmick explained that the rest of the food products grown in West Virginia — including beef, pork, fruits and vegetables — do not hold as significant of a bearing on our agricultural economy as they could.

“We are designing and developing a program that will address that deficiency,” Helmick said.

As part of that program, Helmick proposes that deer farming is an opportunity that has not yet been pursued in West Virginia, but could ultimately result in huge benefits.

Helmick explained that deer farming has been a neglected industry in the past “basically because of policy that’s been established by the administration over the years.”

Compared to our neighbor states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania which have 800 and 1,000 deer farms, respectively, West Virginia currently boasts around 40 deer farms.

Helmick said that Pennsylvania currently generates around $80 million a year from the deer farming industry. However, before West Virginia could see any numbers close to that, certain changes must be made to allow the vision to come to fruition.   

“We have to change policy in West Virginia,” Helmick said.

The deer farming program currently falls under the umbrella of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, but Helmick believes that the program would be more beneficial under the WVDA’s control.

In order for a change of propriety to take place, a new bill must be passed.

“We feel very strongly that we have the votes, and we know how to go about getting the votes,” Helmick said, explaining that about half of the process is political.

“We think we understand it well enough to get legislation passed that would allow us to have a significant number of deer farms in West Virginia, to do the things currently being done in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to help the people of West Virginia.”

At the present time, deer meat is not legally allowed to be sold in stores in West Virginia, proving it difficult for local deer farms to prosper.

“We want to change that. We want to allow those people involved in the business to be able to sell it in West Virginia,” Helmick said.

“What we want, in order to accomplish our goals, is for the WVDA to have control of everything inside the fence,” Helmick said, explaining that to also include the regulation of cattle and hog products.

Helmick said that it should be the WVDA’s responsibility to set the rules and the guidelines of meat production to get that product out on the market for West Virginians to consume.

Not only will state revenue be created, but jobs will be created, too, Helmick said.  

“We know that we can help move agriculture off the bubble and into the future for West Virginia, and this is just one of those components,” Helmick said.

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