Officials seek agricultural boost in MOV

PARKERSBURG – Local officials recently joined West Virginia’s agriculture commissioner on a fact-finding mission to North Carolina to boost the Mountain State’s agricultural base.

Cam Huffman, president and CEO of the Area Roundtable, and Dr. Wayne Dunn, president of the Wood County Commission, joined West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick earlier this month on a one day fact-finding mission to North Carolina, around the Elizabeth City area, as it relates to potential potato production in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

Helmick is pushing a statewide agriculture initiative to boost the number of farmers who can grow and sell their potatoes and other root crops in West Virginia to wholesalers, farmers markets and commercial producers.

“Commissioner Helmick recently had members of his staff perform an asset audit for all 55 counties and the results showed that here in Wood County alone we have several thousand acres of tillable land,” Huffman said. “We want to explore the options that agriculture presents us here and we are looking forward to learning more about what needs to be done to help advance the local food movement across the state.”

Helmick spoke before the Wood County Farm Bureau in March about the potential in West Virginia to create a thriving and prosperous agricultural business base.

According to federal statistics, West Virginians eat between $7.1 and $7.3 billion in food annually, but West Virginia only raise under $1 billion worth of food, Helmick had said. West Virginia produces around $663 million in food with 53 percent of that being from the poultry industry, according to federal data quoted by Helmick in March.

He said the state has a $6 billion opportunity to create a thriving agricultural business which in turn can create jobs.

One such opportunity lies in growing potatoes.

Huffman said there is substantial ground in the Mid-Ohio Valley that lies in the flood plain and is not suitable for industrial development, but could be utilized for farmland and growing crops.

“We are looking at doing soil testing in these areas to see what might be grown,” Huffman said. “There are farms around the area that have been underutilized.

“We want to reach out to them and see what can be done with their farms.”

Huffman said they went and saw a potato operation in North Carolina, where they met with officials and talked about the kind of seeds they use and the costs associated with their business. They also went out into the fields and watched the machinery used to harvest the potatoes and followed the picked potatoes to a facility where they were washed, sorted, separated and bagged.

They discussed what kind of equipment was essential and how it all operated, Huffman said.

“This would be a perfect opportunity to create green jobs in our area as well as utilize underused property,” he said.

Dunn said preliminary information seems to indicate lands near local rivers might be best suited for growing potatoes, but that will be determined after soil testing done by West Virginia University.

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

There are plans to do a “test plot” locally to see if the type of potatoes used by Mister Bee Potato Chips can be produced here on a good scale, Huffman said.

Dunn said many of the potatoes used by Mister Bee come from Wisconsin. If those could be grown locally, they could save a lot of money on transportation costs, he added.

Plans are being worked up for another test area near Huntington, Dunn said, but plans seem to indicate Wood, Wirt, Jackson and Pleasants counties could become a hub of potato production in West Virginia.

Some work would have to be done to make sure the rivers and waterways were protected, but he was impressed with what the farmers in North Carolina were able to accomplish.

Dunn said plans could expand to grow a wide variety of vegetables in West Virginia.

“There certainly a lot of potential,” he said. “It could have a place in our economy.”

Huffman applauds Helmick’s approach in treating agriculture as a means for economic development.

Helmick believes Mid-Ohio Valley farmers can play a vital role in helping to grow potatoes and other vegetables for tabletop consumption by all West Virginians.

“We have a significant opportunity before us right now,” he said. “It’s up to us to take the next step.”