Helmick: Jefferson Co. key to farming growth

KEARNEYSVILLE – Jefferson County’s unique climate, its proximity to large markets, its increasingly diverse crop base and its large number of agricultural research institutions leave it uniquely positioned for major economic expansion, said newly-elected Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick during a visit on Monday.

[cleeng_content id="287955790" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Helmick visited research institutions and farms throughout the Jefferson County during his visit, the first by a commissioner of agriculture in two decades.

He has set a goal of doubling the state’s agricultural output over the next five years, and he says that Jefferson County can play an important role in that expansion.

Newly-elected Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick toured research institutions and farms throughout Jefferson County Monday. The event marked the first time a commissioner of agriculture had visited the county in two decades.

Newly-elected Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick toured research institutions and farms throughout Jefferson County Monday.
The event marked the first time a commissioner of agriculture had visited the county in two decades.

“We’re looking at West Virginia today as one of our early sites to visit because of the tremendous opportunity you have in Jefferson County,” he said. “You’re near a significant population base of 8 to 10 million people where the product that can be grown here can be distributed, sold and consumed.”

“Jefferson County is obviously one of the top two or three agricultural counties in West Virginia. It’s because of the climate. It’s because of the proximity. But its also because of the knowledge that we have here. We have a significant amount of research and entrepreneurship.”

Helmick told a crowd gathered at the Kearneysville Fruit Tree Research and Education Center that the state’s agricultural sector as a whole is too small and insufficiently diversified. While the state consumes around $7.1 billion in food products annually, he said, its agricultural output amounts to only about $460 million, 53 percent of which comes from the poultry industry.

Expanding and diversifying the agricultural industry, he argues, will be key to they state’s overall economic future.

“It’s the fresh market,” said Helmick, who owns a trout farm in Pocahontas County. “We can compete. Now, we’re going to have to be innovative, but when you look at the fuel cost of bringing food from Idaho to Charleston, W.Va., how much do you have in that pound of trout?”

“As we look at diversifying the economy of West Virginia, we look at counties like Jefferson County to be a part of that diversification,” Helmick said. “We understand that coal has been very good to us over the years – it has generated a whole lot of money – but we also look at the possibility of a dwindling coal market.”

“(Agriculture is) the one industry that never goes away,” something Helmick said is not true of the state’s coal industry. “Over time, the seams will peter out … And the environmental issues will hammer it over time. The chemical industry, the same way. The gas industry, the same way.”

Recently Jefferson County has been developing a model for diversified, high-value agricultural production that Helmick says could be adopted by other areas of the state.

“We feel very good about Jefferson County, and what is going on here today,” he said. “They’re showing us how to grow a niche-market fruit: the pawpaw. They’re showing us how to use the high tunnel to its most effective use… It’s the wave of the future of how we’re going to grow crops.”

Extension Agent Mike Harman agreed that high-value, non-traditional crop production and focus on niche markets will be the key to expanding the value of Jefferson County’s agricultural industry.

“Where the real opportunity exists in my mind is for smaller farms that would have a hard time making it financially with traditional crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle,” he said.

“At present, some of the institutions in D.C. consider ‘local food’ to be anything within 200 miles,” Harman said. “We’re producing very little of that food right now. But we have the capacity and ability to produce quite a lot of it.”

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurial farming.”

One such significant emerging market targets recent immigrants.

“If you look at Jefferson and Berkeley and surrounding counties, and you look at D.C. itself, there are one-and-a-half million people in that slice of pie,” Harman said. “In that one-and-a-half million, there are 160,000 people who were born outside of the U.S. So there is a group of people there that long for native foods that they can’t get. That’s a tailor-made market. All you have to do is find out what they want and supply it.”

“One farmer here in Jefferson County told me, ‘Farmers in Jefferson County are sitting on top of the goose that lays the golden eggs,’” Harman said. “‘The problem is nobody wants to sell eggs.’ That’s kind of where we’re at. We need to build the infrastructure and increase the number of farmers who produce these specialty crops and food products.”

Another important step, Harman argued, is to begin producing secondary “value-added” products like jams, jellies, pickles and beverages locally, rather than simply selling bulk primary products to outside food processors.

“It makes good business sense,” Harman said. “They key is that you have to have an outlet to market that value-added product, and you have to make it in sufficient quantity to pay for any infrastructure needs that you have to produce it.”

Agriculture Development Officer Shep Ogden said that a consensus at recent Envision Jefferson meetings had emerged, which pictures a changing agricultural landscape for the county over coming decades. “Pretty much everybody at the table had the same idea and that was: the acreages will be smaller; the value of the crops will be higher; and it will be more based on selling to local markets rather than shipping to distant commodity markets.”

One promising technology Ogden has been aggressively promoting is the use of high tunnels – large, relatively inexpensive, metal-framed and plastic-covered greenhouses that can be used to extend the growing season, reduce pest problems and control the growing climate.

“With some of these high tunnels, people can make $50,000 an acre,” Ogden said, though he noted this was generally only true for smaller farms.

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