By Mannix Porterfield
Walt Helmick chafed constantly at the depiction of him by certain Republicans in this year’s race for agriculture commissioner as a “fake farmer.”
That wasn’t the most painful thing about the campaign, however.
On the very day the longtime Democratic senator won the job, a kidney stone surfaced and it bothered him fully two weeks.
On the day before Thanksgiving, he counted a special blessing, and a ton of relief. The stone at last exited.
“I’m a tough mountain man, regardless of what those people said about me,” Helmick said. “I might own a German sports car, but seldom do I drive it.”
That luxury car and his ownership of a water bottling company inspired some Republican operatives to brand him a “fake farmer” in a number of commercials throughout the campaign.
Admittedly, the television spots were annoying.
“They were ugly and vicious,” the incoming commissioner said.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of Republican friends and they’re upset with that. That’s not the mainline Republicans. They were what the Pocahontas countians call the three R’s — Radical, Right, Republicans.”
Helmick got in the last laugh election night, however, by upending Republican nominee Kent Leonhardt, 52 to 48 percent, with all 1,834 precincts in.
“I took it to another level,” the veteran senator said.
Helmick says he faces a number of issues, stepping into the shoes of a political legend, the retiring Gus Douglass, who held the job longer than any other agriculture commissioner in American history.
“One of them is making sure we work with the Legislature to make sure the Department of Agriculture gets adequate funding to perform the duties as mandated by code,” he said.
That is no easy row to hoe, however, even for a 24-year senator.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has ordered state agencies to roll back spending 7.5 percent, and Helmick’s has a current budget of some $65 million.
Nor is his mission any less complicated by the lame-duck Douglass recently handing out hefty pay raises to certain members of his inner circle.
“Obviously, the timing is questionable,” Helmick said.
“But I will run my own show and my people will run their own show. We’re in the process now of looking at some of the restructuring that we will do. We will do it in a way that will be much more aggressive and create jobs. Agriculture is big in the Eastern Panhandle. We intend to make it a significant industry in all parts of West Virginia. We intend to involve state agencies, such as education and corrections — all state agencies in general — in purchasing West Virginia products.”
Helmick said he also wants to strive to assemble a network to allow the state to grow the industry and provide more vibrant growers involved in food production.
The agriculture commissioner-elect says he firmly agrees with a policy set down by Douglass of transferring the supervision of West Virginia’s fledgling deer farm industry from the Division of Natural Resources — a move that has been tenaciously resisted by the latter.
“There are two sides to that issue, and we will work it prior to the session being kicked off,” he said.
In fact, Helmick said, talks already have been held with interested parties to get the dialogue going before lawmakers convene in February.
“I think it’s self-explanatory,” he said, mirroring the belief among deer farmers that the Agriculture Department is best equipped to deal with animal health and regulations.
“We want to promote an industry out of it. We want to promote deer farming. We want deer meat again available to be sold in West Virginia and outside of West Virginia.”
Just as Tomblin has battled the Environmental Protection Agency in a “war on coal,” Helmick expects to tangle with the federal government in a “war on farms.”
“The EPA is a huge issue with the farming industry across the country,” he said.
“In the Eastern Panhandle, we’re having to deal with the Chesapeake Bay issue and the regulatory structure there by the federal EPA. We’ve already spent well in excess of $100 million in the last two years to address waste water treatment in the South Branch (of the Potomac River). Obviously, it’s not going to stop there. It’s going to go west.”
Helmick pledged his agency would work with both the farming industry and environmental community to make sure regulations are heeded and farm production continues.
“We’re going to be aggressive with the feds,” he said.
For now, the focus on stream pollution has embraced both the poultry and cattle industries.
“Obviously, it’s something we can’t turn our heads on,” Helmick said. “We will be very much involved in making sure that our people are able to farm.”
Helmick is in his 24th year as a state senator, representing the 15th District, and for eight years he served as finance chairman — a record he shares with Tomblin, in his days as a senator, and former Sen. Oshel Craigo.
“It gives me an advantage,” he said. “Look at the qualifications for agriculture commissioner. You have to administer the money. And the agriculture commissioner shall administer legislation passed by the Legislature and look at all regulations. Sure, it (Senate tenure) gives me an upper hand. My working knowledge of the process is hard to take away, that type of experience that you have there.”
In the interview, Helmick couldn’t resist one last shot at his “fake farmer” label and the critics who stuck it on him.
Helmick read the official qualifications from a recent edition of the Blue Book, noting the occupant of the office must implement laws aimed at advancing agriculture, horticulture and similar industries, “and to ensure that state citizens are sold only wholesome, uncontaminated and unadulterated agriculture commodities and products.”
What’s more, Helmick noted that for 15 years he chaired the Forest Management Review Commission, which, at one time, was part of agriculture.
“I’m excited about the challenge, and it is a significant challenge,” the Marlinton area resident said. “I was born ready.”
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