- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

GREEN BANK, W.Va. (AP) - An effort by the state Department of Agriculture to encourage growers to consider potato production has landed at a spot known for its extraterrestrial activity - the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.

The last of six five-acre plots on observatory property was seeded with potatoes last week. The work was done by teams of Pocahontas County farmers using a state-owned planting machine, the Charleston Gazette-Mail (https://bit.ly/1TQceET ) reported.

State Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick is promoting the potato as a cash crop. Last year 36 growers in Cabell, Jackson, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam and Wayne participated.

The agriculture department supplied the machines, potatoes, fertilizer and harvesting equipment. Farmers contribute the land, labor, tractors and fuel, along with half the cost of planting a cover crop after the harvest. More than a half-million pounds of potatoes were produced.

The department will open a processing center in Huntington later this month where growers can have their potatoes washed, dried, graded, weighed and bagged. As production increases, other sites are expected to open around the state.

The potatoes grown at Green Bank will be processed at Huttonsville State Farm.

Green Bank operations director Mike Holstine said the idea to use the land started after a Marlinton supermarket closed in May 2015, leaving the community with one full service grocery.

In December, Helmick gave a presentation on the project and how it could work at Green Bank.

“The commissioner has a really good vision for this program,” Holstine said.

The National Science Foundation then gave Holstine permission to offer the land to the state agriculture department free of charge. Planting started after a recent break in rainy weather.

“Through the whole process, the people on all six teams have been helping each other out,” said Jerry Nelson, special projects coordinator for the agriculture department. “It shows what kind of a farming community we have in this county.”

Helmick said the potatoes being grown at Green Bank have already been sold for use in state prisons and state hospitals.

In 1927, West Virginia’s best year for agricultural production, about 53,000 acres were devoted to potato production statewide. Today that figure is less than 1,000 acres.

“We have a $6 billion divide between the food we eat and the $1 billion worth of food we produce,” Helmick said.

By encouraging farmers to produce more potatoes, “we can help close that gap,” he said.

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