Mister Bee Potato Chips joins West Virginia University at Parkersburg in an agribusiness partnership.
In the 1960s, Mister Bee Potato Chips was advertised as “200 miles fresher” than its competitors. Its new agribusiness partnership with West Virginia University at Parkersburg is about to make its potato chips even fresher than that.
The smell of frying potatoes hangs thick in the air along West Virginia Avenue in Parkersburg. That’s where the West Virginia Potato Chip Company—producer of Mister Bee Potato Chips—is located, nestled in the corner of a residential neighborhood across the railroad tracks from the Ohio River.
Leo and Sarah Klein founded Mister Bee Potato Chip Company—named after one of its original incorporators—in 1951. Back then, Mister Bee Potato Chips were fried in the morning and distributed by Mr. Klein
in the afternoon. The locals of Parkersburg fondly remember elementary school field trips to Mister Bee’s factory, where they ate potato chips hot off the line or enjoyed them with the milkman’s delivery of Broughton dip. Now, almost 70 years later, the West Virginia Potato Chip Company is still the sole potato chip manufacturer in the state.
A partnership takes root
In 2015, Parkersburg native Mary Anne Ketelsen became Mister Bee’s majority owner and, in 2018, she became a managing member. It was in 2018 when Ketelsen first met WVUP’s President Chris Gilmer and expressed her interest in giving back to her alma mater and supporting her hometown
community. “WVUP has always been very special to me. It’s in my blood,” Ketelsen says.
WVUP is just a 15-minute drive down Route 47 from Mister Bee. There, down a tree-lined side road, no more than a stone’s throw from the main campus, is a small, unassuming farm with gently rolling hills. On 10 of its 25 acres, potato plants are just beginning to sprout. But until March of this year, the farm had lain fallow.
Ketelsen had long dreamt of using locally grown potatoes in Mister Bee Potato Chips, but the state’s potato production never reached viable levels, leaving the company no choice but to source them from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. The cost of freight alone was upwards of $5,000 per week. So, this spring, Ketelsen made a $45,000 donation to the college in order to reopen its Riverhawk Farm. “She really did it as a vote of confidence in things unseen,” Gilmer says.
Gilmer, who is a first-generation college student from a sharecropping family, says his upbringing taught him the value of hard work and entrepreneurship. “It also taught me the value of using the resources available to you. In partnership with the right people, any dream can be accomplished,” he says.
Ketelsen’s donation funded the purchase of farm equipment, supplies, and ongoing professional consultation. When it comes time for the 2020 harvest, the 10 acres should yield 220,000 pounds of potatoes, roughly five percent of what Mister Bee needs per year to keep up production. But this harvest is just the beginning. The college will act as a convener, bringing in other local farmers who are interested in providing locally grown potatoes for Mister
The future looks bright
The college also plans to reinvest profits from its sale of potatoes into future crops and increased acreage. Gilmer is enthusiastic about the future of the partnership. “I can’t foresee this is going to do anything except grow and expand and be part of the inheritance of the future generations of WVUP students and graduates.”
When classes start again in the fall, the farm will become an experiential learning center. Chemistry students will have the opportunity to work with local farmers and gain scientific knowledge about soil quality; business students will develop reallife marketing plans with Mister Bee; and marketing students will photograph, write brochures, and develop a website using the new agribusiness program—the joining point of agriculture and business—as their content.
“The students will really benefit from the learning lab this is going to create for them,” Gilmer says. “I think students are going to be touched in so many ways by the enhanced opportunities we hope this will provide.”
Ketelsen agrees. “Maybe one of these kids, we’ll touch them, and they’ll say, ‘One of these days I would like to be a small business owner.’ We want to let college students know there are opportunities in this area.”
Ketelsen and Gilmer also share a commitment to providing opportunities
for veterans through their partnership by way of horticultural therapy. Both have a strong history of supporting veterans’ affairs. Mister Bee has an ongoing pledge to donate 10 percent of its sales of “Salute to Veterans and Military Personnel” chips to the United Services Organization until the end of the year, matching the donation dollar for dollar, and WVUP has a strong Veterans Resource Center dedicated to providing a learning environment that conveys the college’s appreciation for its more than 200 student veterans.
“The students are the center of everything I do and every project I undertake,” Gilmer says. “In the largest way possible, the students benefit, because the community benefits. We form partnerships that sustain the whole economy of the Mid-Ohio Valley, and our students are an integral part of that.”
Back to their roots
In recent years, more than 90 percent of the college’s students have been West Virginians. In the early part of the 20th century, West Virginians grew most of the food they consumed. The partnership between Mister Bee and WVUP can be seen as a way to preserve the traditions of West Virginia as well as Appalachian culture.
Riverhawk Farm now serves the community and gives the students the
opportunity to get back to their agricultural roots, Gilmer says. “A little bit of West Virginia will go out to all the places Mary Anne ships her potato chips, which is a real badge of pride for the Parkersburg community, the Mid-Ohio Valley, and West Virginia.” Mister Bee Potato Chip Company, 513 West Virginia Avenue, Parkersburg, 304.428.6133, misterbee.com; wvup.edu