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Huttonsville potato processing facility unveiled

Inter-Mountain photo by Matthew Burdette West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick debuts the department's new potato processing and packaging equipment Thursday afternoon at the Huttonsville Farm in Randolph County.
Inter-Mountain photo by Matthew Burdette
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick debuts the department’s new potato processing and packaging equipment Thursday afternoon at the Huttonsville Farm in Randolph County.

HUTTONSVILLE, W.Va. — Hoping to capitalize on a $6 billion economic opportunity, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture unveiled its new potato processing facility Thursday afternoon at the Huttonsville Farm.

“We have a significant opportunity in West Virginia to develop another industry, an industry that was around for many years,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick. “After the industrial revolution, we turned to steel and glass, and significantly coal, and now a lot of those are past. Others are dwindling, but agriculture is here to stay.”

Helmick cited U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that show residents of the Mountain State consume $7.3 billion in food products annually. Of that, significantly less than $1 billion is grown in West Virginia.

This year, Helmick spearheaded a potato-growing project at Huttonsville that not only yielded more than 250,000 pounds of the root vegetable, but also garnered interest from a pair of national companies. A separate test plot of 16 varieties of potatoes was grown for Snyder’s of Hanover and Black Gold of North Dakota. Evaluations of the crop currently are underway to determine what varieties have grown best and how those potatoes could best be utilized. With any success, Helmick said, those two companies may set up operations in the Mountain State.

“What we are doing today is showing the first step in what we intend to do,” the commissioner said. “This machine here (the potato processor), we purchased it used from Canada. Mike Teets put a lot of effort into that and the entire crew here did, too. It’s not a new piece of equipment, but it does what we want it to do, and that’s to show that we can grow potatoes in West Virginia, bag them and sell them.”

The potato processor washes, dries, sorts and packs the vegetables into 5, 10 and 50-pound bags. At full speed, the processor can move out 18 bags a minute.

“Right now, we are growing potatoes here and distributing them to state hospitals and to institutions and places like that,” said Jerry Nelson, special projects coordinator for the Department of Agriculture. “This (piece of equipment) will stay here on site. Because of demand, we will probably get a second machine, which will be around the Huntington area.”

“Here, we are going really commercial with it,” Nelson added. “What a great asset this is here for this area and across the state.”

When up to full speed, the sorter only needs four people on the grading table, which is where potatoes with imperfections are removed. The majority of the machine is fully computerized, with one additional manual station to produce 50-pound bags.

Officials said that in addition to potatoes, the machine is capable of sorting and packaging carrots and onions.

“Next year, we intend to do a significant amount more (of potatoes), and then we are going to go into other crops as well,” Helmick said. “We intend to have a cannery located up in Tucker County by next year to can some of the product that’s grown here. Then, at some future point, maybe next year or the year after, we will can product that’s grown here on our farm.”

With the projected growth of the operation, Huttonsville workers are building another equipment and potato storage facility at the farm. This is in addition to a large bunker-type storage area that was built in the 1940s.

Economically, Helmick and other state and county officials expect the operation to have a significant impact.

“This is fantastic,” said Robbie Morris, executive director of the Randolph County Development Authority. “It’s a neat process. I think it’s a first step in what can be a really great thing for boosting the agriculture economy, not only in Randolph County, but in the region.”

“I appreciate Commissioner Helmick including Randolph County in his statewide plan of improving and increasing agriculture as a significant part of the economy,” Morris added. “It’s neat, and I’m really pleased.”

Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor echoed Morris’ sentiments.

“(I’m) quite pleasantly surprised to see what’s going on in our own backyard,” Taylor said. “I think it may make more agricultural opportunities available to our area farmers. I think it’s a great idea, and I think Commissioner Helmick is right on track with it. I know the Randolph County Commission will stand ready and willing to work with him and the department in any way we can to help promote this.”

Del. Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, also said there is plenty of room for agricultural growth in the area.

“Probably only 10 percent of the (Tygart) Valley is being farmed right now,” Hartman said. “I think there is all kinds of potential. Walt is doing everything he can to bring that potential to the foreground.”

Part of bringing that to the forefront is branding, Helmick said. The potatoes being packaged at the Huttonsville facility are put into West Virginia-branded bags. The design of the bags was done in Helmick’s office by Program Specialist Kristen Carrington.

“The logo was developed by Kristen, who is with our staff,” Helmick said. “She did a good job. It does look like West Virginia, and it looks like a potato, so we covered both of them at the same time.”

Ag officials expect production to go into high gear next week, as a significant amount of product remains to be processed.

From there, the potatoes will be available at nearly every farmers market in the state. The product also is being offered for sale to state institutions, public schools and senior centers.

Locally, 50-pound bags of potatoes will be available for purchase today at Crazy Harry’s on the Beverly Five-lane. Additional points of sale will be announced on the Department of Agriculture’s website, www.wvagriculture.gov.

“We do have a significant opportunity,” Helmick said. “We realize that opportunity, and with the help of all the people that are here today and the people that are involved in agriculture from West Virginia University, West Virginia State University and Potomac State College, we intend to move agriculture to another level and to pick up some of that $6 billion opportunity that we are now importing into West Virginia. We intend to take it to the next level and employ West Virginians in that process.”

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