Mason Co. farms in pilot program

Pictured are Ronald Morrison, a beef cattle and hay farmer from Glenwood, at left, and West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick.

GLENWOOD — West Virginia’s commercial industries could soon be expanding into the vegetable world, starting with farms in Mason County.

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Conservation Agency piloted the state’s Potato Demonstration Product this year in the western region of the state. The departments are working in a joint effort with the Guyan and Western conservation districts.

Walt Helmick, West Virginia commissioner of agriculture, said the state has a $6 billion gap between what people consume and what the state produces. The point of the project is to close this gap by creating more commercial agriculture in the state.

He said the project is taking place in Mason, Jackson, Putnam, Cabell, Wayne and Lincoln counties. He said the WVDA chose these six counties to pilot the project because its members believe the area will be a good place for commercial agriculture to grow.

“We did it on the western side because this is an area that has so much potential,” Helmick said. “Over time, we will expand it to include the rest of West Virginia, but we’re going to see how well we do here and how well we think we can do. We got away from agriculture. There’s not a whole lot of agriculture happening in West Virginia, but we feel we can put together a program where the future will look bright and we’ll be a part of diversifying the economic base of West Virginia.”

The WVDA invited commercial buyers from wholesalers a Potato Demonstration Project Field Day on Wednesday. The buyers came to G&G Nursery in Mason County, one of the farms joining the program, to look at the farm and ask the farmers, as well as Rodney Wallbrown, Mason County Agriculture Extension agent for West Virginia University, and WVDA officials questions about the products and the program.

“The reason we’re gathered here today is to let the potential buyers for our potato project have a look at one of the operations that’s part of the three-year pilot program,” Butch Antolini, WVDA director of communications and marketing, said. “We have employees from the Department of Agriculture here and extension agents and potential buyers here.”

Helmick said he also hopes the program will create jobs in West Virginia. He said over the years, some jobs have been lost in other industries such as coal, glass or steel, and wants to see the agriculture industry expand and open up new job positions for West Virginians.

“There’s opportunity. We see the other industries decreasing in numbers of employees, and we think we can provide some solid, good-paying jobs in West Virginia in agriculture,” Helmick said. “We had the buyers here today and people said, ‘If you grow it, we’re interested in buying it and we want a local grown product,’ and we’re hoping to take advantage of that market, which is the local-grown market. It has potential for a living to be made in agriculture in West Virginia.”

Local farmers also came out to the event to meet the buyers and learn more about what they are looking for in their products. Ronald Morrison, a beef cattle and hay farmer from Glenwood, is also joining in the initiative by raising six acres of potatoes this year. He said he hopes to see the project bring more income to West Virginia farmers.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for farmers to have an extra income to go along with our farming,” Morrison said. “I figure, in the last two weeks I’ve lost about $25,000 worth of hay because of the weather, so I’m hoping the potatoes will help make up for that. I think it’s very important for the farmer because there is a demand. Everybody you talk to wants to buy local products and there’s really not a lot of that raised around here, so I think it’s a good idea.”

Helmick said the pilot program is set for three years, and he hopes to expand the program to other parts of the state in the upcoming years.