Ag chief’s aim: Double farm production by 2018
MORGANTOWN – West Virginia’s new agriculture commissioner has an ambitious plan to more than double the output of state farms within five years by growing the poultry and beef industries, and by encouraging school boards, correctional institutions and other government agencies to buy from local producers.
No single strategy can work, but a comprehensive approach can, Commissioner Walt Helmick said. That includes trying to lure producers and processors to southern West Virginia – a virtually barren agricultural region – and persuading young people that they can make money farming.
Helmick told The Associated Press ahead of Friday’s address at the West Virginia Small Farm Conference that an entrepreneurial spirit will be critical to his plan for reversing a declining trend in production.
Helmick, a former state senator from Pocahontas County, was elected last fall to replace Gus Douglass, the nation’s longest-serving agriculture chief, first elected in 1964. He decided not to seek a 12th term. Both men are Democrats.
At its peak in 1935, West Virginia had 135,000 farms but today has only 23,500.
Though the economics of small farms are different, Helmick said there’s tremendous opportunity for growth: West Virginians consume $7.1 billion worth of food every year, yet only $460 million of that is locally produced. And 53 percent that comes from the poultry industry.
Helmick wants to see West Virginia lure a poultry operation, which would also bring much-needed jobs, to the southern part of the state, and expand the beef industry beyond Greenbrier County, where it’s now centered.
Preston County High School now has the state’s only school-based processing facility, he said. West Virginia could create more, involving young people earlier on and showing them sound business plans that might encourage them to continue family traditions.
Farm-to-table initiatives that connect growers directly with consumers also are vital parts of the formula for success, Helmick said.
Like all state agencies, the Department of Agriculture faces a 7.5 percent budget cut in July.
Ex-ally implicates Blankenship: The chief coal executive at the time of a deadly West Virginia mine explosion was implicated Thursday of ordering a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections.
The allegation made by a former president of a Massey Energy subsidiary came as he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and as federal investigators have signaled they are working their way up the ladder to what experts say would be a rare prosecution of a major corporate executive.
Former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart admitted in federal court to working with others to ensure miners at his company and other Massey mines got advance warning about inspections between 2000 and March 2010.
When asked by Judge Irene Berger if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it, Hughart said “the chief executive officer.” Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Don Blankenship was Massey CEO at the time. And outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that’s who her husband meant.
“Don called the office and at home,” she said.
The charges against Hughart grew from federal prosecutors’ continuing investigation of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 workers.
Bridge detonated: Pieces of an aging bridge that connected St. Albans and Nitro are heading to a scrapyard.
Spectators watched as the Dick Henderson Memorial Bridge over the Kanawha River was detonated Friday morning.
In February, crews began cutting sections of the bridge and lowering them onto a barge to be shipped to a scrapyard. But officials had said the remaining pieces were too heavy and decided to use explosives to blast them apart.
The West Virginia Department of Transportation held a watch party at the St. Albans Roadside Park off U.S. 60. The 79-year-old bridge’s Nitro side is set for implosion Friday.
Funds for Sandy cleanup: More than $2.4 million in federal funds have been approved to help the West Virginia Division of Highways continue clearing debris from roads left by Superstorm Sandy.
The funds include nearly $1.4 million for Tucker County alone.
U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin and Congressman Nick Rahall announced the funding Friday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The October storm dumped more than 2 feet of snow in parts of the state, left seven people dead and knocked out electricity to more than a quarter-million customers.
Help for the warbler: The federal government is looking for West Virginia landowners to help keep the golden-winged warbler off the endangered species list.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is administering a $33 million incentive program to protect seven selected species. One of them is the golden-winged warbler, a migratory bird that’s declining in population, especially across West Virginia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the east central and southeastern parts of the state offer appropriate habitat.
The department says tracts of three to five acres or more which are bordered by about 75 percent forestland at elevations of 2,000 to 3,200 feet are ideal for the conservation program.
– The Associated Press