6/14/2014 7:00 AM
By Marla Pisciotta West Virginia Correspondent
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “If we can raise it, they’ll buy it,” said Mike Teets, chief deputy for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and director of eastern operations.
Teets said the department has been working with U.S. Foods, a large food distributor in Huntington that is interested in buying all kinds of vegetables from growers, from peppers to carrots, and more.
“U.S. Foods has spoken with the commissioner several times,” Teets said.
The issue being raised is that West Virginia does not have a large growing window.
Teets said a resolution to this is building high tunnels — lots of them. West Virginia University puts the number of high tunnels in the state at 200. Teets said a lot more will be needed to supply the needs of U.S. Foods.
“It’s going to take some time to get this organized and going,” Teets said.
The USDA has an Environmental Quality Incentive Program, or EQIP, that supports the construction of high tunnels.
“This high tunnel initiative is beyond even food production because it’s more environmentally friendly; concentrated in one spot,” said Buddy Davidson, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.
Currently, the Natural Resources Conservation Service offers $7,200 to new high tunnel growers, depending on the size.
“Anyone can apply,” Teets said.
The state’s growing window became an issue when state officials recently tried to bring Huy Fong Foods, a California-based hot sauce company, to the Potomac Highlands area of West Virginia.
According to Delegate Gary Howell, Huy Fong’s growers, Underwood Ranches, said they needed a 60-day harvest window.
“We don’t have that here. Our window is about two weeks,” Howell said.
He said using high tunnels would extend the beginning and end of the growing season.
At least three areas in West Virginia have been selected to “test grow” peppers.
“Potomac State’s lower farm, formerly the County Poor Farm; West Virginia University Farm at Wardensville; and a private site in the South Branch Valley near Moorefield,” Howell said.
But the Department of Agriculture has struck out in finding the needed 900 to 1,000 pepper plants, said Carl “Butch” Antolini, director of communications at the department. So test growing is still in the planning stages, Antolini said.
Howell said officials are looking beyond Huy Fong to see what other economic development opportunities agriculture can provide.
Antolini concurred, saying the department plans to continue exploring options not only to grow peppers, but other produce as well.
“We are considering producers, packers and fresh products up and down the East Coast and across the country,” Antolini said.
“While looking into the Huy Fong Foods plant, it showed us that we have much agricultural potential because of our proximity to that large market,” Howell said. “There are 10 million people living just to our east in the I-95 corridor that purchase fresh produce.”
What’s needed, according to Antolini, is more high tunnels and greenhouses.
“We were in a meeting recently with the USDA and other officials inquiring about what opportunities were out there for building high tunnels,” Antolini said.
Stacey Huffman, West Virginia University Extension agent, said in an email: “We need to make sure that any horticulture guidance is coming straight from our experts at the West Virginia horticulture department. They thoroughly understand the challenges and opportunities that our state has in terms of horticulture production.”
“We believe there is potential in growing all kinds of crops. But I will ask, where are the high tunnels?’” Antolini said. “Our suggestion would be to approach the development authorities to make the investment of putting up high tunnels or greenhouses.”
Howell said the entire process of trying to lure business to the region has been enlightening.
“For the first time, county, state and federal officials worked together on an economic project. We now have a network established to take advantage of the next thing that comes along,” Howell said. “We are not going to wait for opportunity to knock, we are going to go out and find opportunity and drag it back here.”
For more information on the NRCS program and EQIP, call 304-284-7540.