[caption id="attachment_12708" align="alignleft" width="600"]<a href="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-1.jpg"><img src="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-1.jpg" alt="West Virginia Department of Agriculture employees and potato project participants gathered at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to finish planting seed potatoes last week. Front row, from left:\u2008Charles Sheets, Ryan Taylor, NRAO business manager Mike Holstine, Jarrett McLaughlin, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, WVDA\u2008special projects manager Jerry Nelson, WVDA\u2008business development and marketing specialist Devin Hartman, WVDA\u2008senior farm manager Jonathan Hall, Kelly Meck, Tyrel Beverage, Keith Beverage, Rusty the dog, David McLaughlin, Jacob Meck, Butch Wirt and Mike Hedrick. Second row, from left: Jonah Bauserman, WVDA Jay Saville, Jonathan Taylor and Phillip Doolittle. Not pictured:\u2008Amos Meck and Jason Bauserman. S. Stewart photo" width="600" height="195" class="size-full wp-image-12708" \/><\/a> West Virginia Department of Agriculture employees and potato project participants gathered at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to finish planting seed potatoes last week. Front row, from left:\u2008Charles Sheets, Ryan Taylor, NRAO business manager Mike Holstine, Jarrett McLaughlin, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, WVDA\u2008special projects manager Jerry Nelson, WVDA\u2008business development and marketing specialist Devin Hartman, WVDA\u2008senior farm manager Jonathan Hall, Kelly Meck, Tyrel Beverage, Keith Beverage, Rusty the dog, David McLaughlin, Jacob Meck, Butch Wirt and Mike Hedrick. Second row, from left: Jonah Bauserman, WVDA Jay Saville, Jonathan Taylor and Phillip Doolittle. Not pictured:\u2008Amos Meck and Jason Bauserman. S. Stewart photo[\/caption]\r\n\r\nSuzanne Stewart\r\nStaff Writer\r\n\r\nNational Radio Astronomy Observatory Business Manager Mike Holstine often refers to the \u201csymbiotic relationship\u201d between the NRAO and the community.\r\n\r\nIn a recent interview with Jordi Busque, Holstine said, \u201cThe employees here [at the NRAO] contribute to the local community in many, many ways. We announce the football games. We coach some of the sports teams. Most of the volunteer fire services and emergency services personnel are part of the observatory.\u00a0 We can offer the community the space to meet, to have community meetings, to have town hall meetings.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cBut the support of the community, to allow the observatory to stay here and to thrive, is of paramount importance. Without their support, we couldn\u2019t do what we do, and hopefully, without our support, the community wouldn\u2019t be able to be what it is, as well.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt is a great symbiotic relationship between us and the community.\u201d\r\n\r\nNow, another relationship has been formed \u2013 between the NRAO, the community and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.\r\nHolstine, along with Green Bank residents Jacob Meck and Charles Sheets, approached West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick with an idea to return West Virginia to its agri-economic status of years past.\r\n\r\nThe plan was to get community members back to their roots, so to speak, and return to planting crops to sell \u2013 statewide and nationwide.\r\n\r\n\u201cWalt actually has a very good vision for this,\u201d Holstine said. \u201cHe really has thought about it and put his mind to it. He has a really good vision for where the state could be and has researched it a good bit. In 1928, which was one of the last years we had a big agri-economy in this state, Pocahontas County, in particular, had a very large potato crop and other crops, and brokered those crops out by the train carload around the state and other states. There\u2019s a possibility that we could get back to that.\u201d\r\n\r\nWorking with Helmick, who has a vision for growing crops on every vacant piece of land in the state, Holstine convinced the NRAO to become part of the project and donate the use of 30 acres to plant potatoes.\r\n\r\n[caption id="attachment_12709" align="alignleft" width="400"]<a href="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-2.jpg"><img src="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-2.jpg" alt="Bartow resident Jonah Bauserman, right, walks alongside the potato planter. As Jarrett McLaughlin and Jay Saville monitor the potatoes from the back of the planter, Bauserman watches to make sure the equipment is operating properly. " width="400" height="275" class="size-full wp-image-12709" \/><\/a> Bartow resident Jonah Bauserman, right, walks alongside the potato planter. As Jarrett McLaughlin and Jay Saville monitor the potatoes from the back of the planter, Bauserman watches to make sure the equipment is operating properly. [\/caption]\r\n\r\nThe project includes six teams who will cultivate and record the growth of potatoes in six five-acre plots. The Department of Agriculture provided the seed potatoes and equipment to plant them, and will help with harvesting the potatoes and preparing them for buyers.\r\n\r\n\u201cIf we can get that business plan established, then we can provide that to the growers who may be interested elsewhere in the county and try to rebuild that economy,\u201d Holstine said. \u201cWe came up with the property at no charge to the growers. The Department of Agriculture is doing a good bit of the planting and harvesting work for the growers. It\u2019s sort of a win-win-win for everyone involved.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe Department of Agriculture gets something out of this,\u201d he continued. \u201cWe [the NRAO] get something out of it in that we\u2019re managing the land as we would like to see it managed again. The growers get something out of it by getting a helping hand with this initial business plan and with costs associated with growing.\u201d\r\n\r\nLast week Helmick and the six teams of growers were finishing the planting process in the last of the 30 acres.\r\n\r\nDepartment of Agriculture special projects coordinator Jerry Nelson, formerly of Pocahontas County, has helped organize the project at the NRAO as well as other crop growing projects throughout the state.\r\n\r\nNelson said one of his main goals with the project is to ensure that individuals who want to stay in Pocahontas County have options for creating a business for themselves as full-time farmers or garden hobbyists.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe want people utilizing their ground,\u201d he said. \u201cThere\u2019s people here in Pocahontas County that maybe are not farmers, but they have the ground and they can utilize this for a hobby. I had to move away in 1990 for work and now we have some young farmers here who don\u2019t want to move away and this is a nice program to get them started utilizing their ground.\u201d\r\n\r\n[caption id="attachment_12707" align="alignleft" width="400"]<a href="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potaotes-3.jpg"><img src="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potaotes-3.jpg" alt="NRAO Business Manager Mike Holstine and West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick discuss the potato project on-site last week as planters complete the planting process in the field behind them." width="400" height="285" class="size-full wp-image-12707" \/><\/a> NRAO Business Manager Mike Holstine and West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick discuss the potato project on-site last week as planters complete the planting process in the field behind them.[\/caption]\r\n\r\nPotatoes are a good start. Nelson said that out of the 30 acres at the NRAO, growers will have roughly 300,000 pounds of potatoes. While the potatoes from this first crop are already sold to West Virginia\u2019s prison and hospital systems, there is room for many business ventures in the future.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere\u2019s three major potato chip companies along the Ohio River, and we buy our potatoes from Ohio and Idaho to support those potato chip companies,\u201d Nelson said. \u201cThe commissioner has a staff that\u2019s out there doing the research. We spread this throughout the state with growing potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, onions and sweet potatoes. Next year, we\u2019re going to open this up even larger.\u201d\r\n\r\nNelson said it is important to test the soil to know which crops will succeed best in a certain area. That is why certain counties are growing potatoes while others are interested in growing lettuce or carrots.\r\n\r\n\u201cOver along the Ohio River, some of our state farms over there are growing sweet potatoes, carrots; over in the Moorefield area, we\u2019re growing green beans,\u201d Nelson said. \u201cIt\u2019s the different soils. What the pH is and things like that that we\u2019re testing to see what grows best. Over at Huttonsville last year, we had some test plots with carrots. We\u2019ve since moved those over to Lakin on the Ohio River. I\u2019m also putting in 2,500 tomato plants at Huttonsville and two acres of sweet corn.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe project also involved students, with several FFA programs, including the one at Pocahontas County High School, growing crops for the Department of Agriculture.\r\n\r\nHelmick has his eyes on the future of agriculture in West Virginia, but as he watched the the planting process, he couldn\u2019t help but recall how the state was once a leader in agriculture.\r\n\r\n\u201cThis state was truly an agriculture state,\u201d he said. \u201cFor instance, in 1927, Kanawha County grew 2,200 acres of potatoes. They also were tied for number two for production. The number one county was Preston with 2,300. Also Kanawha County was number one by far in the production of strawberries \u2013 325 acres, and they did it on Davis Creek.\u201d\r\n\r\nHelmick added that Pocahontas County and Marshall County were tied for second in sheep production with 44,000. Coming in first was Pendleton County with 45,000 sheep. Pocahontas County also had 1,000 acres of potatoes.\r\n\r\nIn 1927, without modern technology, planters averaged 100 bushels of potatoes an acre. This year, Helmick said they will average between 300 and 400 bushels an acre.\r\n\r\nThe decline in agriculture was due to the boom of industry in West Virginia and surrounding states. Farmers traded their tractors in to work at steel mills in Pittsburgh or at chemical plants in Kanawha County.\r\n\r\nNow, with a movement back to Farm-to-Table and producing your own crops, Helmick said West Virginia is ripe to be at the top once again.\r\n\r\n[caption id="attachment_12714" align="alignleft" width="400"]<a href="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-4.jpg"><img src="http:\/\/pocahontastimes.com\/wp-content\/uploads\/sites\/25\/2016\/06\/SS-Potatoes-4.jpg" alt="Jay Saville resets the conveyor Thursday on the state provided potato planting machine." width="400" height="340" class="size-full wp-image-12714" \/><\/a> Jay Saville resets the conveyor Thursday on the state provided potato planting machine.[\/caption]\r\n\r\n\u201cWe look at diversifying the economy in West Virginia,\u201d he said. \u201cAgriculture must be a part \u2013 a big part \u2013 of that diversification. Obviously you see what we\u2019re doing. We\u2019re not saying we\u2019re going to do it overnight, but we\u2019re laying out a pretty good footprint.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got to change the culture,\u201d Helmick continued. \u201cWe know the heavy industry will be around for a number of years, but it won\u2019t be what it was. We know coal will be around. We know there will be some chemicals but the glass industry and some of the others are challenged\u201d\r\n\r\nWith the project, Helmick said there are individuals and organizations growing crops all over the state to supplement meals in the prison system, at hospitals, schools and businesses as well as the potato chip companies.\r\n\r\nTo ensure the crops are prepared to ship professionally, the Department of Agriculture purchased a brand new piece of equipment for the aggregation plant in Huntington. Other aggregation plants throughout the state, including the one at Huttonsville, have older equipment that works like the new machine.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe cut timber at Becky\u2019s Creek, and we got enough money out of it that we bought equipment,\u201d Helmick said. \u201cWe bought a piece of equipment \u2013\u00a0it cost $350,000 \u2013 and we\u2019re using the National Guard facility in Huntington to house it.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe machine will process the potatoes. They will go through a hopper onto a belt line and the machine will wash them, dry them, size them, pre-dry them, weigh them and bag them. It can also process leafy vegetables.\r\n\r\nWhile Helmick is always on the lookout for more land to cultivate, Holstine said there is a possibility for expansion on NRAO land.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere is a potential that we could \u2013 probably not expand beyond twenty-five to thirty acres at one time \u2013 but as most people plant potatoes know, you generally don\u2019t plant them twice in the same place back-to-back,\u201d Holstine said. \u201cSo if we need to continue the study next year, I already have another twenty-five acres set aside somewhere else that can be utilized next year if we need to do that.\u201d\r\n\r\nEveryone involved \u2013\u00a0from the growers, to the agencies, to the three who first brainstormed the idea \u2013\u00a0believe this pilot project is a stepping stone to returning West Virginia to its roots as an agricultural hub.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere are hundreds of thousands of tillable acres in the state of West Virginia that are not being used,\u201d Holstine said. \u201cWe need to get the mindset of people back to that agricultural base, and it shouldn\u2019t be too difficult. We\u2019re people that\u2019s used to working hard and bringing ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I think this is a great start to it.\u201d\r\n\r\nGrowers in the project are: Jason Bauserman, Jonah Bauserman, David McLaughlin, Jarrett McLaughlin, Keith Beverage, Tyrel Beverage, Amos and Kelly Meck, Mike Hedrick, Phillip Doolittle, Ryan Taylor and Jonathan Taylor.