Helmick sees deer as potential livestock

By Jim Workman

Many opportunities that would have a significant economic impact in the Mountain State are available, West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick insists.

With the coming legislative session in January, he intends to capitalize on one.

To do so, Helmick feels the state agriculture department must become the regulatory department for raising deer as livestock on more state farms — with venison becoming a locally grown and commercially available meat product, much as cattle provides the beef industry.

"We want to have oversight of deer meat, the regulation and supervision of deer farms," Helmick said. "We already have the people on staff that will monitor it and make sure that it is of good quality. The (West Virginia Division of Natural Resources) doesn't."

The state DNR would still regulate "wildlife" deer, issuing its hunting licenses, managing deer hunting seasons and such.

"We want to create jobs and economic development," Helmick stated.

The concept of deer farming is already a multi-million dollar industry in neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Pennsylvania figures it adds more than $80 million annually to its economy and about 3,500 jobs on more than 750 deer farms.

"We want to be competitive in West Virginia," Helmick said. "We need it in our agency to assure that. We want to grow this industry. There are a small number of deer farms already in West Virginia that have $1.4 million in sales (annually). But there are only 66 jobs (in deer farming in West Virginia) now. If we are more aggressive in promoting this, we can do much better.

"There's not a lot of difference in deer farming than any other farming."

This issue has come up at the West Virginia Legislature before, and failed.

"Different philosophies come and go in the Legislature," explained Helmick, a veteran lawmaker who served in the House of Delegates and the State Senate.

Helmick said the bill would pass one side of the house but not the other, or it would die in a committee, but there seems to be enough support now.

"The Legislature is changing rapidly," he said. "I know of lot of legislators, and they know what we're trying to do. It will be introduced during the first week of the session in 2014.

"We'll push it. It's one of our primary needs. We need it to happen for agriculture in West Virginia. I feel good about it."

Helmick said there were several reasons for holdups in the past, but he said he's talked to a number of lawmakers who agree that it's time.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in deer farming, second only to Texas.

"West Virginia is similar to Pennsylvania in terrain and our people," Helmick pointed out. "We want to expand and take advantage of this great opportunity. We can sell beef but not deer meat in West Virginia. The language of the bill will be very specific."

The agriculture commissioner said his overall goal is simple:

"We want West Virginians to grow crops on West Virginia land to sell to West Virginia consumers," he said. "We just need some legislation."

Helmick often speaks about the $7 billion in food that West Virginians consume annually, of which less than $1 billion is grown in-state.

"That's a significant problem," Helmick said. "And an opportunity."

The Numbers

  • Pennsylvania has 750 deer farms with 3,500 jobs that add $80 million to the Pa. economy each year.
  • West Virginia has $1.4 million in deer farm sales annually, but there are only 66 deer farming jobs.
  • West Virginians consume $7 billion in food each year, but less than $1 billion is grown in-state.