Reprinted with permission from Mineral Daily News-Tribune
KEYSER, W.Va. (WV News) - Representatives of government, higher education, and agriculture from all across the state joined together at WVU Potomac State College Thursday with one thing on their minds - potatoes.
Led by interim president Chris Gilmer, Potomac State hosted the first “Spud Summit” as a kick-off for pursuing an opportunity for state and local growers to supply quality potatoes for West Virginia’s Mister Bee potato chips.
Gilmer, who served as president of WVU Parkersburg prior to coming to Potomac State, began to plant the seeds of the idea while there.
“We had a dream a few years ago that we were going to grow potatoes,” he told the group gathered Thursday in PSC’s Davis Conference Center, adding that Parkersburg has a small farm where they began their pilot project.
Gilmer said they soon realized that Parkersburg’s “20 acres weren’t going to give us the potatoes that we needed.”
Torie Jackson, interim president of WVU Parkersburg, agreed.
“We attempted to grow potatoes, but we weren’t able to get the production we needed,” she said, adding that their yield was “a very small fraction” of what Mister Bee would need in order to meet the growing demand for their product.
At Potomac State, however, Gilmer said there is more room to grow.
“We have 800 acres of working farms here,” he said, to which Jackson added, “We’re excited to continue to partner with Chris Gilmer and work with Mister Bee on this project.”
Gilmer pointed out, however, that the proposal for a statewide potato-growing collaborative could reach way beyond Potomac State and Parkersburg, with other higher ed institutions, business, industry, agriculture, state and national government, and even veterans to be part of the expansive initiative.
Gilmer admitted, however, that there would be no decisions or plans made at Thursday’s summit.
“Today is about questions,” he said, explaining that many questions would need to be answered before the coalition can even begin to approach area farmers with the program.
Rob Graham, sales director for Mister Bee potato chips, told those present a little bit about the company.
Established as a family-owned business in 1951, Mister Bee underwent various financial difficulties and even a fire, before it became the West Virginia Potato Chip Company and was purchased in 2015 by Mary Anne Ketelsen and her partners.
Ketelsen was supposed to be present for Thursday’s summit, but was unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances.
Graham said the company continues to grow; looking to add a second fryer and a kettle fryer soon.
“We use maybe 50,000 pounds of potatoes a day,” he said, adding that transportation costs are often a problem.
“If we could get potatoes here in West Virginia, we could pay the farmers more and it would still save us money,” he said.
“The whole goal is to create a system to bring farmers across the state together to produce the potatoes needed,” said Dr. Donna Ballard of Potomac State.
Ballard noted, however, that one of the issues that needs to be addressed is how to get the word out to the growers that only certain varieties of potatoes are used by the chip company.
“It may not be your standard varieties people are used to,” she said. “We need to develop production guidelines.”
Ballard said different varieties could grow better in different regions of the state.
“I’m sure we could find something that will work in different parts of the state,” she said. That is where the coalition will have to gather data on the potato varieties, soil quality, and more.
“Before we pitch this to the farmers all over the state, we need to have the answers to all these questions,” Gilmer said.
The program was then opened up to the attendees for additional questions, with topics including transportation to the chip factory, shelf life of the potatoes, and how to work with the growers in terms of other crops that can be produced in addition to the potatoes.
“We have to make it economically feasible for the farmers,” Gilmer said.
Following the discussion, the attendees were transported to one of Potomac State’s three farms, where they were treated to lunch of wood-fired pizza prepared in the college’s brick oven.
Gilmer told the group there will be more meetings to come.
“This is not the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning,” he said. “Maybe at the end of the conversation we find out it’s not feasible for the farmers of West Virginia, but we wouldn’t know that if we don’t have these conversations.”