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Walt Helmick: Ag commissioner should be farmers' advocate

Sep. 29, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.

West Virginia's next commissioner of agriculture must work tirelessly to advocate on behalf of West Virginia's farmers and to produce agriculture-based jobs in our state. It means working to sell West Virginia's agriculture products not only inside the state but outside it as well. It means fighting regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, when they overstep their boundaries and do more to interrupt the food chain than to protect it.

Yet it also means striving continually to ensure that the food produced on West Virginia's farms is safe to eat and that the farmers' flocks and herds are free from illness. The Department of Agriculture is the state's first line of defense to protect West Virginians from contaminated foods and foodborne illnesses and to protect animals and crops from disease and contamination.

Being a successful farmer requires expertise in a wide range of fields from A to Z -- agronomy to zoology -- with a healthy dose of economics and marketing in between. Likewise, an effective agriculture commissioner must have a wide range of experience and expertise. Outside of the agencies directly under the control of the governor, the Department of Agriculture is one of the biggest agencies in state government, and its work affects all West Virginians, whether or not they are farmers.

Through my years in the Legislature, including longtime membership on the Senate Agriculture Committee and eight years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I have developed a deep understanding of the processes of government and how to make them work effectively within a budget. Other Senate committees I have served on as chairman include the Banking and Insurance Committee, the Military and Public Safety Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. In addition, I have served on the Energy, Industry and Mining Committee and the Education Committee. I have worked with farmers and for their interests in state government.

As the owner of both agricultural and nonagricultural businesses, I have learned what it takes to be successful in our economy. I look forward to using economic models to help create new markets for West Virginia's agricultural products and create jobs for agriculture-based businesses. Agricultural practices change over the years, so I will work with our research universities to make sure that West Virginia farmers use the latest and most effective methods, including some that are yet to be developed.

As the commissioner of agriculture, I will be a voice for farmers, as well as a facilitator and problem-solver, helping them to navigate the often-confusing processes of state government for the benefit of all West Virginians. I know how to stand up to the federal government and will do it whenever it is necessary to protect West Virginia's interests. I will work with our federal elected officials to make sure the Environmental Protection Agency does not exceed its regulatory authority.

Approximately 95 percent of West Virginia's farms are family-owned, which is the highest rate in the United States. They don't have time to go to Charleston or Washington to fight for what they need from their government, so they need an agriculture commissioner who not only will fight for them but who also knows how to fight effectively. Many people like to whine and complain about government, but I'm not a complainer. I'm a doer. I will do what needs to be done to protect family farmers and move agriculture from the back page to the front page.

Walt Helmick, a resident of Marlinton, is the Democratic candidate for West Virginia commissioner of agriculture.

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