Six-Billion-Dollar Opportunity

West Virginia's Plan to Grow Potatoes

Published in the June 2015 Issue Published online: Jun 03, 2015 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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West Virginia is a land of steep, rocky hills, dense forests and coal mines. It’s a place full of hardworking, blue-collar people—people who embrace that identity. The state is not, however, generally thought of as an agricultural breadbasket, even by West Virginians. The state’s commissioner of agriculture, Walt Helmick, is working to change that, at least to a certain degree.

Helmick is a gregarious person, the kind of guy toward whom every head turns when he opens his mouth. He is West Virginian through and through and makes no apologies for it. Nor does he make any pretense at his state being anything it isn’t. But Helmick sees an opportunity in his state to increase agricultural production substantially, and potatoes, the most consumed product in the state, are at the forefront of his plan.

Helmick calls it the “six-billion-dollar opportunity.” According to USDA figures, West Virginians consume about $7.3 billion worth of food annually; only about $1 billion of that is produced in West Virginia. Helmick sees that rift as a wide open window of opportunity for the state to diversify its economy and support its own. He knows it’s a tall order, and he doesn’t expect the gap to be made up in a year—or even in a decade.

“We’ve been away from agriculture so many years in West Virginia that it’s going to take some time to build it back up,” he says.

A rhetorical question is put to Helmick: West Virginia’s not really potato country, is it? To this, Helmick’s response, though good-natured, is quick and definite: “We obviously think just a little differently there.”

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) has partnered with local conservation districts, local farmers, and the extension services of West Virginia University and West Virginia State University to develop an ambitious pilot program to test the viability of potato production in the state. Before waves of West Virginians left the farms for the factories and mines in the 1930s and ‘40s, Helmick says, potatoes were grown relatively extensively in at least 50 of the state’s 55 counties. The pilot program will, in its first year, grow several varieties of potatoes in eight- to 10-acre lots across the state in an attempt to determine which varieties and cultural practices best lend themselves to profitable potato production.

“We know how to mine coal, but we have the land available to grow many thousands of acres of potatoes,” Helmick says. “I look at Idaho; last year they grew about 317,000 acres. We’re trying to get to 3,000 acres, and we think we can do it efficiently and profitably.”

The pilot has received a lot of interest from West Virginia farmers—more than the WVDA was initially prepared to handle. “We have more interest than we have the capability of implementing,” says Helmick. “We don’t have the expertise or financial means right now whereby we’d undertake such an aggressive approach.”

But the WVDA and its partners plan to aggressively tackle all they can in 2015, fully expecting positive results that will justify the expansion of the project in coming years. Onions, carrots and beans are among the crops Helmick expects to see grown in West Virginia in the future. For now, those plans rest on the success of the 2015 potato crop, which will be marketed in-state. Helmick envisions fresh West Virginia spuds being a welcome change to West Virginians from potatoes shipped from the West and Midwest, which often take more than a week to make their journey.

“We’re not trying to be an Idaho or a Washington State,” Helmick says. “We’re still going to consume more than we grow. We’re realistic people; we know we’re not going to overcome that $6 billion overnight. Here in West Virginia, we call that a pipe dream. But we’re going to grow a lot of the potatoes we consume here.”

When the offhand comment is made that Helmick might have more important things to do than sit for a magazine interview, his response is characteristically enthusiastic and optimistic: “No, no—not any more important than talking about potatoes; I love it. Next time you get an opportunity, you come to West Virginia and we’ll show you potatoes.”