The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 18, 2013

Helmick promotes ‘fresh movement’

The times, they are a-changin’ and Walt Helmick thinks they can change for the better for everyone.

The West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, spoke at the Beckley Rotary Club luncheon Tuesday and talked about the way things have been for the state and the way his department thinks they can be.

“I wanted to share with everyone where we are and explain where the agriculture industry has been and show them what we intend to do in the future,” Helmick said. “I wanted to see what some of everyone’s thoughts were about the so-called ‘fresh movement’ that is plow-to-plate, farm-to-table. It’s the fresh movement in the country and we like to think that we’re ahead of the curve in West Virginia.

“I wanted to share with the folks in Raleigh County and also get some feedback from them, which I did. I got some feedback from the people who were here as to their position on agriculture. It was very positive and a very good meeting.”

The commissioner used figures from the United States Department of Agriculture to help prove his point about the potential of agriculture in West Virginia.

“The state of West Virginia consumes about $7 billion worth of food each year,” he said. “Not even one half of $1 billion goes to agriculture here. There’s a huge opportunity to make that number grow. We can have a fresh product grown by West Virginians, on West Virginia land, to be consumed by West Virginians.

“We won’t be No. 1 in potato production like Idaho is in white potatoes,” Helmick added. “We won’t be No. 1 in sweet potatoes like North Carolina is, but what we want to do is to have a significant impact on the consumption of white potatoes with West Virginia-grown potatoes and the same thing for sweet potatoes, broccoli or carrots. If a product is eaten here, we want to be a player.”

The commissioner says there are several plans in the works to increase the amount agricultural work done in West Virginia.

“We intend to set up educational plots in the coming growing season, which will be in March, April and May,” Helmick said. “A lot of West Virginians will be involved in that structure, but we will also have a structure with our education department in West Virginia for the youth to be involved in agriculture. We have a group of young folks in West Virginia that are looking for an opportunity and I believe that this very well might be one of those opportunities.

“We feel that we can entice a number of people to become agriculture experts, agriculture growers or farmers through the fact that they can make money. We’ve got to help promote their product and at the end of the day, they’ve got to make some money in order to be involved in agriculture.”

Other plans the department has include veteran and prison programs.

“Our largest state-owned farm adjoins the Huttonsville Prison, which is our largest prison in West Virginia,” Helmick said. “We have 1,200 inmates there. We’re going to have some programming there that the prisoners will be expected to participate in and hopefully they will. They can learn a trade, one that is a very profitable trade.

“We’re also doing some things with the military community in providing sites and helping provide them with sites that veterans can learn agriculture and farming as more than just a hobby, but as an occupation.”

Another plan the commissioner has will involve helping to repair damage done by mountain-top mining. Helmick says that plan won’t be promoted or put forward until everything is guaranteed and ready.

“It’s such a huge issue,” he said. “When we approach that issue, and we will, we’ll want to get to a point to where we feel comfortable in talking about mountain-top removal and what we’re doing there. We will do it as a team and there will be a number of us involved in saying, ‘Hey, this is what we intend to do with mountain-top removal’ because, as you might imagine, that’s going to be a real challenge. I want to make sure that we’re right when we pull the trigger.”

On the road to bring back agriculture, Hel-mick says the public has been very helpful with its ideas and opinions.

“I just think the public needs to know that we are committed to making a difference and we have a tremendous opportunity,” Helmick said. “The public has been so receptive and so helpful. They come to us with some ideas that we hadn’t thought of that are solid, good proposals. We’re out there pushing agriculture and we intend to keep pushing it. The public has been good to us.”

“We think that (agriculture) is a no-brainer,” Helmick added. “We’re in a position to make a significant difference in West Virginia in their eating habits, their lives and their occupations. There’s a number of things that we can do. We feel that we’ve got the right people to be leading this march throughout West Virginia.”

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com

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