Returning to our roots for a harvest of plenty

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: Charles Sheets, Ryan Taylor, NRAO business manager Mike Holstine, Jarrett McLaughlin, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, WVDA special projects manager Jerry Nelson, WVDA business development and marketing specialist Devin Hartman, WVDA senior 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: Amos Meck and Jason Bauserman. S. Stewart photo
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: Charles Sheets, Ryan Taylor, NRAO business manager Mike Holstine, Jarrett McLaughlin, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, WVDA special projects manager Jerry Nelson, WVDA business development and marketing specialist Devin Hartman, WVDA senior 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: Amos Meck and Jason Bauserman. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

National Radio Astronomy Observatory Business Manager Mike Holstine often refers to the “symbiotic relationship” between the NRAO and the community.

In a recent interview with Jordi Busque, Holstine said, “The 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.  We can offer the community the space to meet, to have community meetings, to have town hall meetings. 

“But the support of the community, to allow the observatory to stay here and to thrive, is of paramount importance. Without their support, we couldn’t do what we do, and hopefully, without our support, the community wouldn’t be able to be what it is, as well.

“It is a great symbiotic relationship between us and the community.”

Now, another relationship has been formed – between the NRAO, the community and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.
Holstine, 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.

The plan was to get community members back to their roots, so to speak, and return to planting crops to sell – statewide and nationwide.

“Walt actually has a very good vision for this,” Holstine said. “He 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’s a possibility that we could get back to that.”

Working 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.

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.
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.

The 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.

“If 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,” Holstine said. “We 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’s sort of a win-win-win for everyone involved.

“The Department of Agriculture gets something out of this,” he continued. “We [the NRAO] get something out of it in that we’re 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.”

Last week Helmick and the six teams of growers were finishing the planting process in the last of the 30 acres.

Department 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.

Nelson 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.

“We want people utilizing their ground,” he said. “There’s 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’t want to move away and this is a nice program to get them started utilizing their ground.”

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.
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.

Potatoes 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’s prison and hospital systems, there is room for many business ventures in the future.

“There’s three major potato chip companies along the Ohio River, and we buy our potatoes from Ohio and Idaho to support those potato chip companies,” Nelson said. “The commissioner has a staff that’s out there doing the research. We spread this throughout the state with growing potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, onions and sweet potatoes. Next year, we’re going to open this up even larger.”

Nelson 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.

“Over along the Ohio River, some of our state farms over there are growing sweet potatoes, carrots; over in the Moorefield area, we’re growing green beans,” Nelson said. “It’s the different soils. What the pH is and things like that that we’re testing to see what grows best. Over at Huttonsville last year, we had some test plots with carrots. We’ve since moved those over to Lakin on the Ohio River. I’m also putting in 2,500 tomato plants at Huttonsville and two acres of sweet corn.”

The project also involved students, with several FFA programs, including the one at Pocahontas County High School, growing crops for the Department of Agriculture.

Helmick has his eyes on the future of agriculture in West Virginia, but as he watched the the planting process, he couldn’t help but recall how the state was once a leader in agriculture.

“This state was truly an agriculture state,” he said. “For 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 – 325 acres, and they did it on Davis Creek.”

Helmick 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Now, 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.

Jay Saville resets the conveyor Thursday on the state provided potato planting machine.
Jay Saville resets the conveyor Thursday on the state provided potato planting machine.

“We look at diversifying the economy in West Virginia,” he said. “Agriculture must be a part – a big part – of that diversification. Obviously you see what we’re doing. We’re not saying we’re going to do it overnight, but we’re laying out a pretty good footprint.

“We’ve got to change the culture,” Helmick continued. “We know the heavy industry will be around for a number of years, but it won’t 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”

With 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.

To 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.

“We cut timber at Becky’s Creek, and we got enough money out of it that we bought equipment,” Helmick said. “We bought a piece of equipment – it cost $350,000 – and we’re using the National Guard facility in Huntington to house it.”

The 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.

While Helmick is always on the lookout for more land to cultivate, Holstine said there is a possibility for expansion on NRAO land.

“There is a potential that we could – probably not expand beyond twenty-five to thirty acres at one time – but as most people plant potatoes know, you generally don’t plant them twice in the same place back-to-back,” Holstine said. “So 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.”

Everyone involved – from the growers, to the agencies, to the three who first brainstormed the idea – believe this pilot project is a stepping stone to returning West Virginia to its roots as an agricultural hub.

“There are hundreds of thousands of tillable acres in the state of West Virginia that are not being used,” Holstine said. “We need to get the mindset of people back to that agricultural base, and it shouldn’t be too difficult. We’re people that’s used to working hard and bringing ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I think this is a great start to it.”

Growers 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.

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