Ag potential is great in Jefferson Co.

I recently spent two days in Jefferson County, visiting a variety of farms, markets and other agriculture-related facilities. The goal of the tour was to find ways the WVDA can help boost the agriculture industry in West Virginia’s easternmost county.

Jefferson County is uniquely poised to make substantial strides in its agricultural economy. First, it is located within 60 miles of both the D.C. and Baltimore beltways, providing a ready-made market of roughly 10 million people.

A third of the county’s total acreage is in crops, by far the highest percentage in the state – and the number of farms in the county is actually increasing. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms in Jefferson County increased 20 percent.

The Jefferson County Farm Service Agency (FSA) office covers three counties in Virginia. It handled over $1.5 million in payments in 2012, 23 percent of the total payments in West Virginia. This office is a very valuable local resource for farmers, and it will continue to be a key asset as agriculture becomes a larger part of the overall economy.

Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick admires a striped beet grown by Rob Young on his diversified vegetable operation during a recent visit to Jefferson County.

Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick admires a striped beet grown by
Rob Young on his diversified vegetable operation during a recent visit to Jefferson County.

The county is also home to substantial agricultural resources. During our tour we paid a lengthy visit to WVU’s Kearneysville Tree Fruit Research and Education Center and we made quick stops at USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center.

But the real resource is farmers who have actively promoted themselves and their products. Peter Corum with Morgan’s Grove Market is planning to build a major structure to augment his “open air marketplace for local farmers, bakers, chefs, artists, crafters, musicians and special entertainers/educator to share, promote, display and sell their locally grown or made products.” The market welcomes vendors each week and has installed a community garden for this year.

Bill Marshall is operating a production high tunnel financed through the Jefferson County Development Authority. Brian Bircher’s Black Dog Coffee Company is importing a product that can’t be grown here, but is adding value by roasting and retailing premium coffee at numerous locations. His main location provides space for other local food and crafts.

Bill White Grantham says he has a hard time growing enough hay to meet the demand of horse owners in the area. He has built a new barn to store hay, and he operates a small-scale fish hatchery where he grows rainbow trout for local markets.

Rob Young and family are using ingenuity and a “waste-nothing” attitude to operate a diversified all-natural vegetable operation. We also visited an operation that buys spent hens from out of state, and then smokes them whole.

This trip was made possible through the hard work of Jefferson County Extension Agent Michael Harman, Jefferson County Agricultural Development Officer Shepherd Ogden and Jefferson County Development Authority Director John Reisenweber. My thanks to them for organizing a very interesting and informative itinerary for us.

Jefferson County’s potential is obvious, but there are also obstacles to continued growth. The U.S. EPA’s continuing, and at times unreasonable, focus on the Potomac River watershed is one barrier to farmers. But the biggest problem facing farmers in Jefferson County is the deer herd. Farmers there report 22 percent crop losses each year due to deer.

Any company that could generate a 22 percent profit margin is one I would call very successful, so if we can put a substantial dent in deer losses, we could help our farmers be much more successful from a financial standpoint. I will be meeting with the Governor to see what can be done to deal with this critical issue.

I hope you had the chance to enjoy the Sesquicentennial events surrounding West Virginia Day. I attended the opening ceremonies Thursday and rode in the parade down Kanawha Boulevard Saturday. I was quite impressed with the crowd that lined the street and filled the grounds of the Capitol Complex during these events. Marketing had a booth on the Capitol Plaza and I commend them for their efforts to boost the Department’s profile and to educate the public about agriculture in the Mountain State.

I also enjoyed attending the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair (MSACF) and the Ripley Fourth of July Celebration over the holiday weekend. I rode in the Independence Day parade – the oldest one in the state – and I helped with the opening ceremony of the MSACF. The MSACF was created as part of West Virginia’s Centennial in 1963, making this year the event’s 50th anniversary. My thanks to everyone who has helped to organize and sustain these landmark West Virginia events throughout the years.

The world quietly reached a milestone in 2011, according to a new report. Farmed fish production topped beef production for the first time. The gap widened in 2012, with aquaculture output reaching a record 66 million tons, compared with production of beef at 63 million tons. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. This marks a shift in consumer tastes, and in production capabilities.

Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to close to 90 million tons.

But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat. The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible.

Much of the world’s grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world’s fisheries are fished to their limits or already crashing.

WVDA is working to put fallow fields back into production and to grow the aquaculture industry in West Virginia. In the future, producing the food we eat locally may become a necessity, rather than just a way to eat fresher produce and stimulate the state’s economy.

I’d like to remind all the gardeners out there of the Department’s largest fruit and vegetable contest, which has been going since 1996. Records are maintained in a variety of categories and published on the WVDA website,, under the Marketing tab.

The contest is open to any fruit or vegetable grown in West Virginia during 2013. Entrants should send photos and evidence of the size/weight of their prize plants to WVDA, 1900 Kanawha Blvd. East, Charleston, 25305.


— Walt Helmick is West Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture. This article originally appeared in the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Market Bulletin.


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