Walt Helmick: the water farmer

This story was originally published May 23, 2012 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

MINNEHAHA SPRINGS – High on a Pocahontas County ridge, a natural spring spits out 20 gallons of water each minute.

It runs down the mountain through a mile of pipe, supplying water to five cottages and a wood-fired hot tub, before making its final stop: state Sen. Walt Helmick’s pocket.

The man knows how to balance a budget. When Helmick and his wife bought their 200-acre property a decade ago, he wanted to make sure the investment would pay for itself. So he turned the property’s natural spring into a business, Allegheny Lodge Enterprises.

The plant now produces about 5,000 bottles of spring water daily, five days a week, and employs one full-time and one part-time worker. Helmick admits it’s an incredibly small operation (“Coke probably does that in two minutes”), but the plant is doing well.

Allegheny Lodge Enterprises sells its house brand, “Minnehaha Mist,” to grocery stores and produces custom-labeled water for hospitals, schools, insurance companies, tourism companies, athletic teams and churches.

The company has sold water to Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, the state Treasurer’s Office, The Coal Heritage Highway Authority, Charleston Area Medical Center, Allegheny Insurance in Elkins and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.

The plant also produces one-gallon jugs of water that are sold at grocery stores and five-gallon jugs for use in water fountains.

Helmick keeps a close eye on his costs. He makes all the deliveries for the company, usually in a big single-axle Freightliner. He also can recite, by heart, where each penny of his operation goes.

It costs a penny to haul each 16-ounce bottle from Georgia to the bottling plant. Plastic caps are 2 cents each. Labels cost 4 cents, and Helmick’s hired help costs about 3 cents per bottle.

He loses one and a half cents for depreciation on his equipment. Insurance premiums take half a penny.

Helmick, by the way, is a former longtime chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee.

“If you’re going to buy the place, it’s got to pay for itself,” he said.

His unconventional business plan has drawn fire from political opponents in the last few months.

Helmick remains in the state Senate but is running for state agriculture commissioner.

State law dictates that the commissioner must be “a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture, and shall have made agriculture his chief business for a period of 10 years immediately preceding his election.”

While Helmick insists his water bottling operation is a type of agriculture, his opponents don’t agree.

In a YouTube video posted last month, the West Virginia Young Republicans call Helmick a “fake farmer” and allege he doesn’t own a truck. (He actually owns four trucks, including the aforementioned Freightliner and a retired state road pickup he uses on his property.

The group’s website also features a poster reminiscent of the “HOPE” and “CHANGE” posters from President Obama’s 2008 campaign. This poster features Helmick’s portrait and the words “FAKE FARMER.”

His opponents in the Democrat primary also took shots at his agricultural background.

Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Steve Miller’s television commercial ended with the tagline “Steve Miller, a farmer for Agriculture Commissioner.” The announcer emphasized “farmer.”

Helmick’s Republican challenger, retired Marine and cattle farmer Kent Leonhardt, says he plans to continue challenging Helmick’s eligibility in the general election.

Helmick actually plans to use profits from his bottling operation to start a livestock operation . . . but that business plan also is out of the ordinary.

His bottling company was named after a lodge that once stood on the property. The four-story, 16-room lodge was built in 1913 and was a popular recreation spot for years. It burned to the ground in 1983, and the site is now an empty field.

There are already five cottages on the property, including one he uses as his Pocahontas County residence, but he plans to use profits from the water bottling plant to rebuild the lodge.

He already has the blueprints. Helmick worked with students from his alma mater, West Virginia University Institute of Technology, to draw up plans for the lodge based on the old pictures.

Helmick keeps photos from the lodge’s heyday in his desk at the bottling plant.

“I have a goal to see that again someday,” he said.

One of the old pictures shows elk grazing under trees in the lodge’s side yard. Helmick wants to bring the animals back, too.

The elk, which originally came to West Virginia by train from Yellowstone National Park, were set loose into the surrounding woods when the lodge burned. They made their way to neighboring farms, where farmers shot them.

Helmick says he is still trying to decide whether he wants to bring deer or elk onto the property. He said he wouldn’t allow hunting but plans to sell the animals’ meat to keep populations in check.

Helmick said he hopes to have deer or elk on the land by the end of the year. There’s still a lot of work to do, however. State law requires cervid, or deer, farms to erect a 6-foot fence around the whole property to keep wild deer from mingling with farmers’ herds.

Helmick already has fenced about 30 acres, but he needs to put up a layer of woven fencing in addition to the existing post-and-wire fence. He doesn’t seem daunted by the task.

“I’m a worker. I have no intention of ever retiring. I have so much to do,” he said.

There’s really only one thing holding Helmick back from rebuilding the lodge and starting his deer farm: his other job.

“I’m addicted to the political life. We all have our shortcomings,” the longtime senator said.

When the Legislature is in session, Helmick doesn’t get to spend much time in Pocahontas County. He lives in his Charleston residence during that time.

He also has spent the last several months running his first statewide campaign, seeking the Democrat nomination for agriculture commissioner. He won that bid earlier this month, but “Walt Helmick for Commissioner of Agriculture” signs still lean against a wall inside the plant. A “We Want Walt” campaign water bottle sits on his kitchen counter.

His workload could get much heavier in the next few months. Helmick said he plans to take the state agriculture department “to another level” if he wins the commission race this November.

“We’ve got to promote our products in West Virginia. I think there’s potential for this stuff. You can see what we’ve done with it,” he said.

“This is what West Virginia needs.”