CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Research into a key beer ingredient and edible fungi at West Virginia State University is getting a boost from the state Department of Agriculture.This year, the department gave WVSU two grants totaling nearly $36,000 to improve the production of mushrooms and hops.A $23,000 grant will focus on locally grown and organically produced hops. Flowers on hop plants are a key component in beer production.Melissa Stewart, a WVSU extension specialist, said, "The craft brewing industry in our state is seeing a surge recently. Through this project, we're working to connect West Virginia farmers with the commercial production of hops and, in turn, foster new economic development opportunities."A second grant, totaling nearly $13,000, will set up demonstration sites studying the production of mushrooms in both urban and rural settings.Brad Cochran, a WVSU extension agent, said, "We are seeking to diversify existing mushroom markets and create new ones in West Virginia."Our goal is to find new markets for selling mushrooms and to try different varieties to gauge production levels and educate our farmers about how to produce their own crops."The program, Cochran said, will focus on specialty mushrooms, including shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Educational workshops will be offered to growers interested in learning more about growing their own mushrooms."This is a new endeavor. We have these little breweries. We will study to see if we can get them the hop growers they need," said Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick."I am pushing agriculture. It is a significant opportunity. In West Virginia, we consume $7 billion worth of food a year. But we grow less than $1 billion. That leaves a $6 billion economic opportunity," Helmick said."West Virginia has several microbreweries. And several more are popping up," Cochran said. "We are trying different varieties of hops in West Virginia. We are talking to a few of the breweries around here to see if we can get those varieties of hops produced in West Virginia that the local breweries need."Ann Saville, who owns Taylor Books in downtown Charleston, recently opened Charleston Brewing Co. at the corner of Summers and Quarrier streets.Cochran said Saville is one of the local brewery owners he is working with.Cochran hopes the research grants will be renewed so WVSU can continue its work "for three years, hopefully. On the mushroom side, numbers that came out last year showed a 4 million-pound discrepancy between what is demanded and what is produced in West Virginia."Cochran said the Department of Agriculture hopes to increase mushroom production for local use."We are creating places for folks to go to see what we are taking about in terms of commercial mushroom production. We're hoping anybody and everybody will take advantage of it. It can be as big, or as small, a project as you want it to be."A family could grow shiitake mushrooms on two or three logs under the deck of their back porch. A farm could grow shiitake mushrooms on hundreds of logs," Cochran said. "Right now, we don't have a lot of data and information to throw out there yet. These two grants will help us get a lot more information."The WVSU grants will focus on growing hops and mushrooms in the central and southern counties of West Virginia.The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded $240,000 in specialty agriculture grants in West Virginia this year.Previous awards to WVSU funded continuing projects about increasing small fruit production and implementing season-extending techniques with high-tunnel growing systems.Helmick said the USDA has funded 157 research projects in recent years with $1,436,240 in grants."We are sure West Virginia State will do an excellent job of researching, looking at the ups and downs. We feel good about that."WVSU will study mushrooms in rural and urban settings. They will set up a databank on the different species," Helmick said. "Hopefully, we will generate more money from growing mushrooms. We have a significant opportunity."In the past, Helmick said, specialty crop block grants have focused on growing and producing fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, nursery crops, honey and maple syrup."We want West Virginians to grow a product on West Virginia land for West Virginians to consume."Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.