Commissioner of Agriculture talks spuds

Tygarts Valley High School FFA students look on as potatoes are harvested at Huttonsville Friday. WEST VIRGINIA Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick talks about the  sacks used to promote  and market West Virginia grown potatoes. The bag was designed by WVDA Special Projects Coordinator Kirsten Rhodes. D. Moore photos
Tygarts Valley High School FFA students look on as potatoes are harvested at Huttonsville Friday. WEST VIRGINIA Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick talks about the sacks used to promote and market West Virginia grown potatoes. The bag was designed by WVDA Special Projects Coordinator Kirsten Rhodes. D. Moore photos

Cailey Moore
Staff Writer

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Hel- mick stopped at the Huttonsville State Farm Wildlife Management Area Friday to laud the continuing progress of the Potato Demonstration Project.

“We’re on to potatoes today,” explained Helmick, “and this is a pilot project for the state. We’re doing this on [both sides] of the mountain. On the western side, we grew in six different counties. The production is good over there, but as you’ll see, it is very good here. We’re going to do over half a million pounds in this test program that we’re doing to see how we can do it.”

In order to gain a better understanding of potato farming in West Virginia, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture took a look at what farmers did years ago.

“Over in Pocahontas County, they did 1,000 acres,” Helmrick added. “Here, they did 1,800 acres in Randolph County. Now, we have 2,800 in Huttonsville and 4,800 acres total.”

The WVDA has plans to expand the Potato Demonstration Project and return to Pocahontas County in the future.

“Pocahontas County is super blessed,” he said. “I mean, we have five state parks and two state forests. Nobody else in West Virginia comes close to having thatype of state influence. We have 312,000 acres of protected land that’s called the Monongahela National Forest. When you look at it, how do you put together a plan, a thought or a vision for the future? With Pocahontas County, you put those down first. You say this is our basis. We’ve got good land. We’ve got beautiful land. We’ve got clean water, and we have all those things.

“Once we’re over in Pocahontas, we’ll have a pilot project on private land, or maybe we’ll do some down at Denmar. Denmar’s an excellent piece of property.”

Until the late 1920s and early 1930s, West Virginia was an agricultural state. However, the appearance of coal, chemicals, glass and steel brought a change to the state, and suddenly, it was easier to work at the mills than it was to stay on the farms.

“We’re getting back to some of those basics that we left and shouldn’t have left,” Helmick added. “We can’t change the past and there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been. The future is now, and it is here.”
The three-year project, which was introduced to the state in 2014, encourages West Virginia farmers to become involved in the commercial potato industry.

“We import everything we eat,” Helmick explained, “and we consume, in West Virginia, seven billion, three-hundred million dollars worth of food. Yet, we grow significantly less than one billion dollars worth. Basically, we’re importing about six billion dollars [worth of food]. So, you look at that six billion dollar figure and ask what we can do with our people – with the population here.

“Think how many jobs we just created. We have over a six billion dollar opportunity, and we’re putting together a program that will cut those numbers. We’re not going to do it overnight. We didn’t get in this ship overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. We’ve got it moving in our direction, and we’re going to take it to another level next year.”

In addition to the Tygarts Valley High School Future Farmers of America students, representatives from Wendling’s Food Service, of Buckhannon, were also in attendance.

“They’re looking at our product today,” Helmick explained, “and they’ll buy a lot of what we’re doing now. We want to get a West Virginia brand in the stores of West Virginia. They want a West Virginia grown product, but they’re looking for a couple of things.

“They want it to be competitive in quality and competitive in price. Not just Wendling’s. That’s consistent throughout West Virginia. We’re talking to the school people, and they’re saying the same thing – we want two things: we want you to be competitive in quality and competitive in price. We understand that. They’re willing to do what we need to have done, provided we can accomplish those two things. That’s why they’re here.”

Last week, Wendling’s representatives took samples of products being produced by Helmick’s project to their customers and sold twenty cases. According to Wendling CEO and president Christopher Wendling, Wendling’s customers loved that the products were West Virginia grown.

Wendling’s Keith Buchanan chimed in on the work Helmick’s spearheading, as well.

“It’s kind of the beginning,” he said. “You have to look at the long view, and that’s what’s Walt’s doing. He’s looking at the long view, introducing today’s youth to the operation, and he’s saying we could really make this work. We just need the right partners and the right places with the right willingness.”

Cailey Moore may be contacted at cdmoore@pocahontastimes.com

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