When Walt Helmick was State Agriculture Commissioner he wanted to encourage the expansion of the agri-food industry. Helmick argued the state was underachieving in food production so he began pilot programs for beans and potatoes.
Helmick and his team envisioned creating and equipping various collection points around the state where farmers could bring their potatoes to be cleaned and prepared for market. The state spent about $1 million of taxpayer money on a huge machine, crates and other materials and established the first potato aggregation point in Huntington.
West Virginia built it, but the potatoes never came. Crescent Gallagher, spokesman for the state agriculture department, said the machine has only been used three or four times and it is now for sale. “We decided it’s not something we have the resources for any more,” he told MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny.
The ag department’s abandonment of the potato business is also attributable to the change in administrations. Republican Kent Leonhardt defeated Helmick, a Democrat, last November. Leonhart was critical during the campaign of Helmick’s potato plans.
Helmick’s ag department also made the controversial decision to use tax dollars to buy four breeding cows from Oklahoma and bring them to West Virginia with the intent of making available superior bloodlines. That move upset the West Virginia Farm Bureau, which argued the state’s breeding cows created unfair competition for farmers.
Leonhardt’s administration is now stuck with the cows. “There’s no reason to sell them because we wouldn’t get anywhere near what we bought them for,” Gallagher said.
In fairness, the state agriculture commissioner’s job description includes “implementing legislative enactments designed to advance the interests of agriculture, horticulture and similar industries in West Virginia.” I remember interviewing Helmick about the project; he was just trying to jumpstart the state’s agriculture economy.
However, this turned into another example of the government using taxpayer dollars to pick economic winners and losers. Occasionally government planners will hit on a winner, but most of the time the result is wasted money and that was the case with the potato project and the cows.
The private sector, through the tried and true method of market competition, weeds out bad ideas, while allowing for good ones to flourish. If a potato processing facility made economic sense for West Virginia, it’s likely that a hardworking entrepreneur would have figured that out long ago.