Farm bureau sees agricultural potential

PARKERSBURG – There is potential in West Virginia to create a thriving and prosperous agricultural business, the state agriculture commissioner told the Wood County Farm Bureau Thursday evening.

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick spoke to about 30 people Thursday evening at the Black Judicial Annex in Parkersburg about the potential to grow and produce products within the state, from potatoes to sheep and beef cattle.

According to federal statistics, West Virginians eat between $7.1 and $7.3 billion in food annually, Helmick said.

“Yet in West Virginia today, we grow less than $1 billion,” he said. “(According to federal data) we have $663 million with 53 percent of that being from the poultry industry.

“We have $6 billion worth of opportunity in West Virginia.”

Some of the biggest consumers in the state are the school systems with $105 million-$120 million in food a year, all of it brought into the state, Helmick said.

“We simply don’t grow it here in West Virginia,” he said.

Another big buyer of food brought into the state is the state’s prisons system, which bought 21,000 pounds of carrots and 800 hogs last year, not one from West Virginia.

“We can control both of those, but we have to have the product to sell,” Helmick said. “We don’t have that today.”

Counties across the state have seen their agricultural potential slipping, he said.

At one time, there were 800,000 sheep in West Virginia. Those have dwindled to less than 30,000. There were around 700,000 heads of beef cattle and that number has dropped to around 350,000.

“We want to improve meat processing and keep that product right here,” Helmick said. “We need to keep some of that money here in West Virginia.

“To do that, we need processing plants. We can overcome the problems in the meat market.”

Work is being done to create meat-processing facilities and feed lots for the cattle in the state.

“We are dealing with companies that would like to come here,” Helmick said.

With certain crops, the state is looking to take advantage of land cleared off from mountaintop removal to plant things like potatoes. There are 105,000 acres of flatland as a result with railway access from the coal mining days.

Initiatives are being put in place for farmers to grow and process their products in the state, Helmick said.

“We want West Virginians to consume West Virginian product, grown on West Virginian land by West Virginians for West Virginians to consume,” Helmick said. “If we can do it, it will work.”

It can take eight days to bring potatoes from Idaho to West Virginia by train. Company officials with U.S. Foods have told Helmick it costs more to transport the potatoes than for the product itself.

“We know we can grow them here,” he said. “It had been done for years.”

Officials have been looking around the state for places that be used to grow large quantities of potatoes, types that would rival anything coming out of Idaho.

“The number of jobs that can be connected to growing those potatoes is significant,” Helmick said.

One of the biggest challenges is educating the coming generation on how to do the needed work in agriculture to be successful at it, he said.

“A significant opportunity exists in agriculture,” Helmick said. “We need to look ahead and be aggressive.”