CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick wants to expand the state's agriculture industry by partnering with universities and public schools to increase demand for farm products.
Helmick made his first-ever appearance before the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on Monday.
It is a yearly tradition for the agriculture commissioner to appear before the committee. While Helmick is just beginning his first term as commissioner, it was well-known territory. The former state senator was a longtime member of the agriculture committee.
Helmick told committee members there currently are about 23,000 farms in the Mountain State. He said his administration would seek to grow that number, particularly in the sheep and poultry industries.
He also said the Department of Agriculture would seek out "farm-to-table" partnerships with state universities and school systems so students could receive produce and meat products from West Virginia farmers.
Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, asked Helmick how the department would improve West Virginia's agricultural export market.
Helmick said the department is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study ways to increase business for state farmers but said the domestic market would be his first priority.
He said the market is already there. The USDA estimates West Virginians spend more than $7 billion on food each year.
"We have so much opportunity here locally before we ever get to the export market," he said. "The domestic market's going to come first to make the impact we want to make."
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Helmick also asked senators to support moving deer farming from under the Division of Natural Resources' purview to the Department of Agriculture.
"We want that endeavor under our watch. We feel we're better qualified, much more attuned to deer farming than natural resources," Helmick told committee members. "We're in the agriculture farming community, and we feel we should have it."
The tug-of-war over deer farming has been going on for years between the DNR and agriculture department. For the last seven legislative sessions, deer farmers have pushed for a bill that would give the agriculture department authority over their operations.
Each bill has failed.