11/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Marla Pisciotta West Virginia Correspondent
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick has been touring the state to find locations for hog farming and sites to develop bee and pollinator habitats.
“We are currently buying in excess of 100,000 pounds of pork each year to feed inmates in the state prisons and that doesn’t include what is being purchased in the regional jail juvenile facilities,” Helmick said. “That is a significant expenditure.”
Helmick said he opposes spending taxpayer dollars out of state to feed in-state inmates. Most of the pork is being purchased from sites in Ohio.
“That money needs to be spent in West Virginia,” Helmick said.
Carl “Butch” Antolini, Helmick’s director of communications, said the Agriculture Department is in the process of looking at locations all over the state, including the reclaimed mountain top removal sites in southern West Virginia.
“We are looking at sites in West Virginia to serve as a location to establish a small test plot for a commercial growing site for pork. Mingo County is one of the places we have explored,” Antolini said.
Earlier Associated Press reports indicated a site had been chosen for the test plot, but Antolini said nothing has been finalized.
“We have not made a decision yet. The commissioner would prefer to see a farmer involved. However, we are also discussing it being a state farm,” he said. “No decision is going to be made until the site is chosen.”
Helmick added, “Once everything is on the table we will discuss and decide how the facility would be operated.”
Steve Kominar, director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, confirmed that his county was actively being considered as a potential site for the test farm.
“The Department of Agriculture told us this week that we are being considered. There is very little agriculture in southern West Virginia,” Kominar said.
The preliminary plan would be to establish a 500-head hog farm and use the meat to feed inmates.
Kominar said research is being done to see if anything similar has been in other states.
“We in Mingo County are looking to diversify our economy. We’re in coal country. We do private partnerships with post-mine land use, areas that could be used for ag products. We’d like to take advantage of that to create some sort of ag industry in our county,” Kominar said.
The department is also looking at sites to develop bee and pollinator habits.
Mingo County, Kominar said, has very steep slopes with lots of vegetation, which makes it conducive to bee pollination.
“We have thousands of acres available,” he said, adding that coal has become a depleting asset. “We have to make room for the economy base in the future. Diversification could have a huge impact on us. There is plenty of coal but the government won’t let us mine it right now.”
Both Kominar and Antolini said assessments on locations have just begun. But Antolini added the department is also looking at a site in the northern part of the state as well.
“We’re close to making a decision but we haven’t selected an initial test site,” said Antolini. “If all goes well, we plan to expand the program.”