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Helmick touts West Virginia’s ‘$6-billion-dollar opportunity’  

Commissioner of Agriculture Walk Helmick explains his proposed program to increase potato production in West Virginia. Helmick met with local residents and local and state representatives at the state's agricultural facility in Huttonsville. The commissioner stands in front of the Department of Agriculture's new potato cleaning and bagging equipment. WVPA photo by Wayne Sheets.
Commissioner of Agriculture Walk Helmick explains his proposed program to increase potato production in West Virginia. Helmick met with local residents and local and state representatives at the state’s agricultural facility in Huttonsville. The commissioner stands in front of the Department of Agriculture’s new potato cleaning and bagging equipment. WVPA photo by Wayne Sheets.
         HUTTONSVILLE, W.Va. — West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick calls it “the $6-billion-dollar opportunity,” referring to the fact that less than $1 billion of the $7.3 billion worth of food consumed annually by West Virginians is raised in the state.

Helmick is mobilizing the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to build — or rebuild — another industry in the state. His first step is encouraging West Virginia farmers to raise more food and he’s starting with potatoes.

Americans consume 128 pounds of potatoes per person annually. Potatoes are a $4.3-billion-dollar business in the United States.

But West Virginia produces so few potatoes it isn’t even listed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s production charts. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 342 West Virginia farms had a total of just 335 acres devoted to potato production. The state Department of Agriculture has 15 acres in potatoes and produces 250,000 to 300,000 pounds a year for use in state prisons and institutions. QuickFacts-Potatoes jpeg

Helmick says it wasn’t always that way —in the 1920s and 1930s, West Virginians produced most of the food they consumed. He says that as the state industrialized, it got away from farming, “… but agriculture is still here.”

Helmick aims to revitalize West Virginia’s potato-farming business by removing obstacles.
On Thursday, Oct. 16, he unveiled a potato-processing machine at the department’s Huttonsville farm. The machine washes and dries potatoes, sorts them in three sizes, and bags them. Department spokesman Butch Antolini figures the machine, at full speed, could process all of the state’s potatoes in a day. Mike Teets, director of the department’s Eastern Operations, bought the used machine in Canada for about $98,000. He figures it would cost $250,000 if bought new.
Helmick hopes West Virginia farmers will raise potatoes when they realize they don’t have to buy such expensive equipment. They can use the state’s machine for a small fee. The department also has acquired a potato digger to help with harvests.

The department is helping develop the state’s agricultural business in other ways:

* Antolini said it contracted with Black Gold Farms of Grand Forks, N.D., to grow 14 varieties of potatoes on state property at Huttonsville and Lakin. Black Gold has harvested those crops and will soon report on which varieties grow best in the soil at those locations. The results will be shared with farmers around the state.

Kirsten Rhodes, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's special projects coordinator, holds a potato sack emblazoned with the logo she designed. 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. Additional points of sale will be announced on the Department of Agriculture’s website, www.wvagriculture.gov. WVPA photo by George Hohmann.
Kirsten Rhodes, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s special projects coordinator, holds a potato sack emblazoned with the logo she designed. The product is being offered for sale to state institutions, public schools and senior centers. Additional points of sale will be announced on the Department of Agriculture’s website, www.wvagriculture.gov. WVPA photo by George Hohmann.

* Kirsten Rhodes, the department’s special projects coordinator, has designed a logo dominated by a brown, lumpy, potato-like outline of the state. She hopes that when people see it they’ll realize not all potatoes are from Idaho and will think, “Yes, there is a West Virginia potato.”

Helmick’s initiative seeks to buck a trend.

“Over the past decade, the potato industry has significantly consolidated growing operations,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The Census of Agriculture reported 15,014 farms that produced potatoes in 2007, down from 51,500 farms reported in 1974. Because of large capital investments in equipment and storage facilities, farmers have sought to maximize production through larger operations.”

Helmick and his staff are convinced there is a ready market for West Virginia-grown potatoes.

US Foods, a major food distributor, receives three railroad boxcars of potatoes from Idaho every week at its distribution center in Hurricane, Antolini said. “That’s the equivalent of 10 tractor-trailer loads of potatoes — over 400,000 pounds of potatoes they’re purchasing from Idaho — and it takes eight days to get here,” he said.

Another major buyer is the West Virginia Potato Chip Co., producer of Mister Bee-brand potato chips. At full capacity, the company can use 100,000 pounds of potatoes a week.

In a 2012 interview, the owners of the Parkersburg company said they were buying potatoes from Florida in the winter, Alabama and the Carolinas in the spring, and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin in the summer.

Mister Bee’s fryer already uses West Virginia-produced natural gas. Using Mountain State potatoes would allow Mister Bee to advertise that its potato chips are an all-West Virginia product, the owner said.

“We do have a sizable opportunity in West Virginia,” Helmick told about 40 people who came to see the potato-processing machine in action. “We intend to take agriculture to the next level.” He called the opportunity for West Virginians to grow the food consumed in the Mountain State “the greatest economic development project we have in West Virginia right now.”

Mike Teets, director of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's Eastern Operations, displays a sack of potatoes grown and processed at the department's Huttonsville farm. The potatoes — in  West Virginia-branded bags — will be available at nearly every farmers market in the state. WVPA photo by George Hohmann.
Mike Teets, director of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Operations, displays a sack of potatoes grown and processed at the department’s Huttonsville farm. The potatoes — in West Virginia-branded bags — will be available at nearly every farmers market in the state. WVPA photo by George Hohmann.

The Huttonsville potato-processing machine also can process carrots and onions. Antolini said plans are in the works to eventually buy and install a similar machine in the Huntington area.

Helmick said, “We’ve got to demonstrate that it can be done and I am confident once that takes place the private sector will take over.”

The department plans to install a cannery in Tucker County next year, he said.

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