The West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick was a speaker at the 9th Annual Post Mine Land Use Forum, held at the Earl Ray Tomblin Convention Center and sponsored by the Corridor G Regional Development Authority.
Helmick said USDA numbers backed up by our tax statistics say West Virginians consume over $7 billion of food each year. He said we grow less than $1 billion in food every year and 53 percent of that less than $1 billion comes from poultry, only one county that has more manufacturing jobs than service jobs.
Hardy County has more manufacturing jobs because of the poultry operations there that generate about 3,000 direct jobs. American Woodmark Corporation is also in Hardy County, which makes them the county with more manufacturing than service jobs.
The seven to one ratio is an opportunity according to Helmick, and his idea on how to begin is to produce the food necessary to feed the people in the prison system in West Virginia. Corrections (prisons like Mt. Olive) has approximately 5,200 people incarcerated and regional jails has another 5,000.
According to research conducted using contracts for beef, pork and potatoes, they consume 350,000 of beef which West Virginia provides, but none of the pork and very little of the potatoes. In corrections, they consume 100,000 pounds of pork each year, or approximately 400 hogs, which is currently being bought from Ohio. Currently, plans are being made to raise the hogs on post mine use land to see if it can be done in West Virginia instead of buying them from Ohio.
Southern West Virginia has all the assets necessary to be successful: a remote site, good roads, good railroad access and post mine use land availability.
Helmick said the hog farm could be an example and the industry could be grown from there. The area has all the assets necessary, the other requirement needed is commitment.
The money that is spent is that of West Virginians and it could be used within West Virginia, growing and extending to other areas such as the school system, where $125 million is spent on food for schools grades Pre-K through 12.
Not only would it help West Virginians, it would give this schools high-quality, fresher food that would be at the same or a relative price.
Helmick said there was 100,000 acres of post mine land available to use, with 30,000 acres in Logan County, 29,000 in Mingo County and the rest in Boone, McDowell and Lincoln Counties.
He talked about other states that have big percentages of certain crops like Idaho, which has 73 percent of the trout and a big percentage of white potatoes and North Carolina, which produces 42 percent of the sweet potatoes. Helmick feels we are capable of growing crops in West Virginia to feed not only West Virginians, but to export.
“We have a $6 billion opportunity. If we tarry, we will lose that opportunity,” said Helmick.