West Virginia's new Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick addressed the West Virginia Small Farm Conference on March 1 in Morgantown with plans for reversing a declining trend in farm production not only in West Virginia, but the entire country. That plan was to double the output from West Virginia farms within five years by growing the poultry and beef industries; Helmick was elected last fall to replace Gus Douglass, the nation's longest-serving agriculture chief. Douglass was elected to 11 terms since 1964 but decided not to seek re-election.
Helmick is seeking a comprehensive plan which also includes encouraging school boards, correctional institutions and other government agencies to buy from local producers. With plans of diversifying the industry in the state, Helmick wants keep pace with the coal, timber and natural gas industries in the state. "We know that we have coal that's good to us, timber that's good to us. Chemicals and gas, those have been solid industries. But we believe there's an opportunity to move agriculture to a level that is much more than it is today. We will employ people, we'll create quality jobs and we will grow a quality product for West Virginians," Helmick said.
Helmick is a former state senator from Pocahontas County and this conference was his first major speech since his election. In 1935, West Virginia had 135,000 farms and once produced 677,000 beef cattle a year. Today the state only has about 23,500 farms and produces roughly 365,000 cattle per year.
Helmick also touched on plans for a bond to fund the construction of a new Agriculture Headquarters somewhere in Kanawha County. It's currently located in a former Air Force Radar Station in Guthrie.
"It's hard work, so there's got to be a monetary reward. That must be part of it,” Helmick said. “Farming is secondary to anybody’s thoughts. It’s a pretty good way of life and it’s great for our state.”
Sources: Charleston Daily Mail, WOWK-TV, WBOY