RIPLEY - The historic home of the FFA Convention and the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair will become an even better place for educational opportunities, public events and private meetings, according to West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick. Helmick was at the sprawling facility Monday to meet with staff and county officials about the future of the complex, which is now under Department of Agriculture direction. 

“We believe that we can make this great property thrive with the plans we’re now putting in place,” said Commissioner Helmick. “We want to bring even more private visitors to the facility, as well as expand the educational opportunities offered here.”

WVDA is currently advertising for a new director for the facility who can both manage daily operations and aggressively market the facility. Commissioner Helmick said WVDA is currently laying the groundwork for the new director when he or she is selected.

WVDA will take care of some maintenance projects that have been deferred in recent years, such as replacing the roof of the dining hall (currently underway). The WVDA will also investigate the possibility of expanding meeting space to match the lodging space, Helmick said.

“We can sleep 600 here, but we only have meeting space for about 400,” he said. “The FFA sets up a large meeting tent to help accommodate all the students when they’re here.” 

Cedar Lakes will continue to have a strong connection to agriculture education. Besides the annual FFA events, WVDA will construct and operate high tunnels and outdoor gardens that wil serve as hand-on learning laboratories for youth and adult education programs.

One aspect of the educational program will be business planning.

“We need to step beyond just the production side. We want people doing intensive workshops here where business planning is on equal footing with the growing side,” said Helmick. “The farmers of tomorrow will also need to be able to market their products and have true business relationships with their customers.”

Many of the traditional aspects of Cedar Lakes will remain the same. It will remain the home of the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair, and it will continue to seek private conference business. One of the biggrest is the “Road Scholar” program. Road Scholar offers 5,500 learning adventures, serving more than 100,000 participants annually, including art and craft training at Cedar Lakes. The programs combine travel and education to provide experiential learning opportunities featuring an extraordinary range of topics, formats and locations in every state in the U.S., 150 countries and aboard ships on rivers and oceans worldwide.

The State legislature gave control of the property to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) on July 1, 2016. The West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) had controlled the property since 1950, when the property was donated by Jackson County to what was then known as the state Board of Education for use as a youth retreat. It quickly became a camp for the Future Farmers of America, now known simply as FFA, and Future Homemakers of America.

Acreage and buildings were added and the current facility comprises 300 acres and approximately 70 buildings and features, plus small scenic lakes and fields. The facility has meeting space for 400 and can accommodate 606 overnight visitors in its dormitory-style cabins and the newer 48-room Holt Lodge, which opened in 1996.

“We’ve been looking for a place to implement practical agriculture,” said Helmick. “We’re not interested in theory. We want to bring in FFA kids and even 4-H kids from different areas of West Virginia, 300-400 at a time, here to Cedar Lakes.

“USDA figures show seven billon, 300 millon dollars worth of food is consumed by 1,852,000 West Virginians. Up until 1930 we were truly an agricultural state. Then we went to heavy industry. Up north, we went to steel primarily. In northcentral West Virginia, we went to glass. In the Kanawha Valley, we became the chemical center of the world. In terms of agriculture we began buying imported products. Now as we see these major industries turning down very rapidly, we’re trying to reverse our economy and get back on a track with agriculture as a significant part of it. At one time in our past, we grew 53,000 acres of potatoes in West Virginia. To get back on track, we’re going to have to train people in practical agriculture application.”

Helmick said he has always had a knowledge of and kept an eye on Cedar Lakes, both personally as a former vo-tech teacher who attended classes there and in the Senate, where he helped appropriate over $2 million for the construction of Holt Lodge.

“There no better place to teach practical agriculture than right here (Cedar Lakes),” he said. “As we researched it, we saw more and more value. It’s tremendous for the community here and for this section of West Virginia. We want to keep Cedar Lakes as it basically is today, and do some inside training for agriculture and some outside growth in remote areas that we’re now putting together. We didn’t pick it up to bail anybody out. We picked it up because it’s the right thing to do for agriculture and the youth. We’ll also have come veteran agriculture programs. They’ll be here from the very beginning. They’ll be here in class this winter.”

In terms of agriculture in the economy, Helmick said the West Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) is a prime example. The DOC wants 310,000 pounds of lettuce. They want to order 80,000 of carrots and 80,000 pounds of onions, peas, mixed vegetables, one-half million pounds of potatoes. Prisons and regional jails serve 30,000 meals a day, seven days a week, and that’s just corrections. He said it is imperative that we learn how to produce those kinds of amounts through practical application of agriculture with both inside and outside growth with classes based on the needs of West Virginia taught at Cedar Lakes going forward.

“The farm to table movement is a popular buzz word around the country, but we were doing it in 1927 in West Virginia,” said Helmick. “We grew everything we consumed right here in the mountains, and then we sold to the outside world. We ate a fresh product grown on West Virginia lands by West Virginians to be consumed by West Virginians. That’s what we’re all about today. We want to apply farm technology and do it right here at Cedar Lakes.”

Helmick said there will be improvements to Cedar Lakes facilities, including expanding the Assembly Hall to seat 500-600. Helmick wants and expects more activity at Cedar Lakes and such expansion is needed to accommodate that.

Lowe’s is providing new playground equipment for the facility. The disc golf association is expanding the disc golf course. There are other community grants and matching grants that will also be applied towards improvements and enhancements of the facility and program offerings there.

“Cedar Lakes has been a part of this community for over half a century,” said Helmick. “We want it to continue to be part of this community for many, many years to come, but in a more significant way.”