West Virginia Closes Potato Processing Center

Published online: Oct 09, 2017 Articles Marla Haislip
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Participants in West Virginia’s Potato Pilot Project and the West Virginia Division of Corrections are feeling the brunt of the state Department of Agriculture’s decision to close the Huntington Aggregation Center.

Bill Stewart, head of the Wayne County conservation agency, worked with the previous agriculture administration and was instrumental in starting the potato program.

“I worked with Mr. Helmick (former West Virginia agriculture commissioner Walt Helmick),” says Stewart. “We wanted to do what is right for the people of West Virginia. It breaks my heart to see this aggregation gone.”

On Monday, Stewart helped load the equipment from the aggregation center, a place where potatoes were cleaned, sized and bagged. Stewart says that in addition to the root processing machine, valued at $450,000, the building housed a walnut huller, which was never used, and honey separators. He could not place a value on the other equipment.

“The equipment was loaded on three tractor-trailers,” he says. “I have no idea where it was being hauled. I think the walnut huller went to the Black Walnut Festival.”

Of the original 32 growers involved in the three-year pilot program, Stewart said that a handful will continue growing potatoes.

“Once the department of agriculture announced the separation plant was closing, most of the farmers decided not to plant this year,” he says.

The West Virginia Division of Corrections has also been involved in the potato program. Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, says the department “had been involved in state-owned farm operations for decades, but that participation became quite limited in recent years.”

Messina says that corrections agreed to provide inmate labor for the potato project from 2015 to 2017.

But, he says, “The latest legislative audit reflects corrections had raised questions about the continuing viability of the state-owned farm operations as a cost-effective source of food for correctional facilities.”

Stewart says the building was perfect for future plans, which included using large rooms to educate veterans and those suffering from drugs on how to grow potatoes and other vegetables.

“It was a beautiful setup; I don’t understand why this is being canceled,” he says.

Stewart says the idea wasn’t for the state to make money, but to help farmers make a living.

“The entire project was researched by (Helmick), and his feeling was farmers could survive even a depression if they were self-sufficient in growing their own foods,” Stewart says.

“The department was not paying rent on the Huntington building,” says Norm Bailey, chief of staff of the state ag department. “A formal lease agreement between the previous administration and the National Guard had not been finalized.”

An arrangement has been made to lease the building to the city of Huntington.

Bailey says the pilot potato program was designed to encourage the production of potatoes in the state.

“The program ends in March 2018. We will continue to support the active growers, but we can’t staff and man the aggregation equipment, which is what was occurring,” he says. “It takes multiple people to run that machinery.”

West Virginia agriculture commissioner Kent Leonhardt says the program was being run by the government and hardly used.

“When you give a grower the seed and fertilizer and then tell them you have a market for the potatoes, what farmer wouldn’t take that deal?” Leonhardt says of the potato program. “They were getting paid no matter what. It was costing taxpayers money.”

Leonhardt says the center lost $2.8 million over the past three years. That figure includes the cost of a root processing machine valued at $500,000. He says the bottom line figures show that it was costing about $2 to grow a pound of potatoes.

Department spokeswoman Cresent Gallagher says the negative amount surfaced during an audit of the department’s farm account. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture owns numerous farms throughout the state.

“We graze beef on the farms that produce food for the correction facilities and prisons, which is required by state code,” says Bailey.

Leonhardt says the discrepancies were discovered early in his term as commissioner. But, he says, “We had so many things to do and we didn’t come up with an immediate solution.”

He says the department is studying aggregation and where it can be done by private industry.

Stewart says that if the current administration is concerned about losing money, they should do an audit on the department-owned farms that raise beef.

“I won’t comment any further,” he says.

In the meantime, Bailey says the department will continue to support active potato growers. As for the $500,000 processing machine, Bailey says word has been put out for a possible public/private partnership to use the machine.

“The active potato growers will be able to use the machine for harvesting,” he says.

As for the division of corrections, Messina says, “For at least the last four years, the division of corrections has been an active participant in the Harvest Now Initiative. This season, at least nine facilities grew more than 60,000 pounds of produce both for their own kitchens and outside organizations including food pantries, churches and schools. The Anthony Correctional Center alone produced 1,626 pounds of potatoes for its kitchen.”

Bailey says all agriculture department-owned farms will be re-evaluated.

 

Source: Lancaster Farming