The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest News

March 1, 2013

Helmick wants to double W.Va. farm production

West Virginia’s new agriculture commissioner has an ambitious plan to more than double the output of state farms within five years by growing the poultry and beef industries, and by encouraging school boards, correctional institutions and other government agencies to buy from local producers.

No single strategy can work, but a comprehensive approach can, Commissioner Walt Helmick said Friday. That includes trying to lure producers and processors to southern West Virginia — a virtually barren agricultural region — and persuading young people that they can make money farming.

Helmick told The Associated Press ahead of an evening address at the West Virginia Small Farm Conference that an entrepreneurial spirit will be critical to his plan for reversing a declining trend in production.

“We just want to help diversify the industry in West Virginia,” he said. “We know that we have coal that’s good to us, timber that’s good to us. Chemicals and gas. Those have been solid industries. But we believe there’s an opportunity to move agriculture to a level that is much more than it is today.

“We will employ people, we’ll create quality jobs and we will grow a quality product for West Virginians,” he said.

Helmick, a former state senator from Pocahontas County, was elected last fall to replace Gus Douglass, the nation’s longest-serving agriculture chief. Douglass was elected to 11 terms since 1964 but decided not to seek re-election.

The conference in Morgantown was Helmick’s first major speech to the state’s farmers since his election.

At its peak in 1935, West Virginia had 135,000 farms but today has only 23,500. That’s in line with national trends, but Helmick said West Virginia still has the nation’s highest percentage of family-owned farms.

Though the economics of small farms are different, Helmick said there’s tremendous opportunity for growth: West Virginians consume $7.1 billion worth of food every year, yet only $460 million of that is locally produced. And 53 percent that comes from the poultry industry.

Helmick wants to see West Virginia lure a poultry operation, which would also bring much-needed jobs, to the southern part of the state, and expand the beef industry beyond Greenbrier County, where it’s now centered.

The state once produced 677,000 beef cattle a year, he said, but now produces just 365,000. Rebuilding that industry will require land and more processing centers, but it can be done, Helmick said.

Preston County High School, for example, now has the only school-based processing facility, he said. West Virginia could create more, involving young people earlier on and showing them sound business plans that might encourage them to continue family traditions.

“It’s hard work,” he said, “so there’s got to be a monetary reward. That must be part of it.”

Farm-to-table initiatives that connect growers directly with consumers are also vital parts of the formula for success, Helmick said.

Connecting growers with 55 county school districts, regional jails and state prisons, and colleges and universities could benefit both the farmer and the consumers, who will be eating fresh, healthy food from sources they can trust.

Regional supply systems, with cooling and storage facilities that serve several counties, would help build such relationships, Helmick said.

Like all state agencies, the Department of Agriculture faces a 7.5 percent budget cut in July, but Helmick said he won’t be following through on an earlier proposal to eliminate pest-control programs for black flies and gypsy moths.

“That will not happen,” he said. “We can’t sacrifice our timber and tourism industries.”

Rather, he said, there will be smaller, across-the-board cuts and the elimination or consolidation of positions through attrition.

Though he didn’t offer details, Helmick also said budget cuts won’t derail his plans for a bond issue that would fund construction of a new agricultural headquarters “in Kanawha County somewhere,” closer to the seat of government in Charleston.

The department is now housed at a 1950s-era, former Air Force radar station in Guthrie, about 5 miles outside the capital.

“It gives the impression, which has really become a reality now, that farming is secondary to anybody’s thoughts,” Helmick said.

“It’s a pretty good way of life. And it’s great for our state,” he added. “West Virginia will be improved ... if we indeed improve agriculture.”

 

1
Text Only
Latest News
  • forum1 VIDEO: Meet the Candidates

    ABOUT THE FORUM:
    The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce hosted a Meet the Candidates forum Thursday morning at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.

    April 25, 2014 2 Photos

  • Forum: U.S. Senate and House

    U.S. Senate
    The lone candidate for U.S. Senate to attend the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce Meet the Candidate Forum, David Wamsley, described himself as “the most liberal candidate, the most conservative candidate and the most moderate candidate” in the race. Wamsley said he believes each individual issue should be dealt with on its merits and not because of partisan politics.

    April 25, 2014

  • Forum: House of Delegates

    District 28
    Democratic House of Delegates candidates Jeffry Pritt and James Brown focused on issues dealing with the efficiency of the Legislature, crime, infrastructure and taxes.

    April 25, 2014

  • Forum: Board of Education

    Perennial board of education issues of technology, consolidation and truancy were among the questions dealt with Thursday by candidates for a seat on the Raleigh County Board of Education.

    April 25, 2014

  • After being line-item vetoed from state budget, Meadow Bridge to get $50,000 from WVDOE

    After the prospect was initially vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in March, Fayette County School Superintendent Keith Butcher announced this week that the county will indeed receive funds for Meadow Bridge High School after all.

    April 25, 2014

  • ARH, BARH registered nurses to stage one-day strike

    A national labor union announced Thursday that registered nurses at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital will join colleagues at Appalachian Regional Hospital in Hazard, Ky., in staging a one-day strike May 1.

    April 25, 2014

  • expressway Coalfields Expressway developments detailed by WVDOT

    A convoy of press, public and politics raised clouds of dust along an unfinished corridor of the long-awaited Coalfields Expressway Thursday during an open tour of the construction zone.

    April 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Mercer County firefighters batting three different brush fires

    Firefighters are currently on the scene of at least three brush fires now burning in rural areas of Mercer County.

    April 24, 2014

  • BeverlyMagnumMUG.jpg Woman who attempted to rob bank at gunpoint captured in Tennessee

    A woman who attempted to rob a Bluefield bank at gunpoint has been captured in Tennessee , police said Thursday.

    April 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Former federal prison worker pleads guilty to sex offense

    A former federal prison employee pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Beckley to engaging in abusive sexual contact with a female inmate.

    April 24, 2014