Helmick wants W.Va. agriculture to grow

PARKERSBURG – West Virginians consume more than $7 billion in agricultural products each year, but only produce about $1 billion of it, according to West Virginia Agricultural Commissioner Walt Helmick.

The statistics have been collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Helmick said he is looking for ways to close that gap by encouraging more in-state agricultural production.

Helmick was the keynote speaker Monday at the weekly meeting of the Parkersburg Rotary Club at the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg.

“The opportunity is there for $6 billion for growers in West Virginia,” Helmick said. “We want West Virginians growing on West Virginia land food for West Virginians to consume.”

Helmick said he has been working with Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell in support of the local farmers’ market and officials in Charleston, Huntington and other places to find ways to improve and expand those programs.

From where West Virginia used to be in terms of agricultural production to where it is now and where it is moving toward in the future, Helmick believes the state is moving in the wrong direction. West Virginia once produced most of what it consumed but has moved far away from that, he said.

Helmick cited potatoes and yams as two items that could be more extensively grown in West Virginia, but most of the spuds consumed in the state come from Idaho for potatoes and North Carolina for sweet potatoes.

An important part of food production is preservation and West Virginia used to be home to several canneries, but no such industry now exists in the state and Helmick wants to bring it back. He also wants to get more involved in education at the secondary school level and beyond to teach young people and also work through the state’s extension programs.

Helmick said his office is working to develop studies and inventories of what West Virginia has available in terms of growing space and related issues as a step in closing that gap between consumption and production.

“We want to grow these industries,” Helmick said. “We’re committed to agriculture.”