W.Va.’s Department Of Agriculture Race: Supporting The Small Farm
Two farmers from north central West Virginia are vying for the position that guides and promotes the state’s agriculture industry. The Republican incumbent and the Democratic challenger both say they’re passionate about communication, which experts say is key, given the makeup and conditions of the industry in the Mountain State.
West Virginia’s agriculture community is made of about 22,900 farms — most of them are small and 9.5 of 10 are family owned — the highest rate in the country. Without much flat land, the state produces a lot of hay, apples and peaches, specialty crops, as well as cattle, chicken, turkey and trout. Overall, about $500 million comes into the state from traditional agriculture. For some perspective, neighboring Virginia generates $52 billion. According to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, 80 percent of these farms earn less than $10,000 a year.
“Realize that big ag is never gonna work here,” said Fritz Fritz Boettner, the Food Development Director at the Center for Resilient Communities at West Virginia University. “Accept it, and move on. And say, how do we help small scale farmers?”
Boettner also points to the work the department does to regulate safe food sales and management, but he stressed that there’s a lot of potential economic growth to be tapped in supporting small farmers. He says the state’s Department of Agriculture plays critical roles to develop that economy, and also in cultivating health and well-being in the state.
“We drastically undervalue the role of the Department of Agriculture in our food system and feeding people,” Boettner said. “All the food access programs and distribution, all that federal funding that comes into the state goes to the Department of Agriculture, then they divvy it out. They have intense control of how we provide food to people.”
A Department of Agriculture
West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture was established in the early 1900s to promote the state’s agriculture. Over the years it’s grown to ensure that all agricultural products in the state are safely sold.
According to the WV Encyclopedia, the department’s responsibilities include:
- prevent, control, and eradicate animal and poultry diseases;
- inspect commercial slaughterhouses;
- regulate pesticides;
- detect and control plant diseases;
- distribute agricultural information, including the monthly Market Bulletin, circulation 60,000;
- enforce laws to protect the public food supply; and
- support rural development initiatives.
The state Department of Agriculture works cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on some matters, particularly meat and poultry inspections, and detection and control of plant diseases.
Leonhardt vs. Beach
While both men who want to head the agency have a background in farming, they’re coming to the position in different ways.
Current Commissioner Kent Leonhardt is running on his record.
“I'm not a career politician,” Leonhardt explained. “I'm only in my 6th year in politics.”
He’s originally from Buffalo, New York. He had a military career in the U.S. Marine Corp, retired in 1996, and today owns about 380 acres in Monongalia County, raising sheep, cattle, goats and sometimes selling hay.
Meanwhile state Sen. Bob Beach, the Democratic challenger, comes to the table as native farmer and a longtime politician.
“I’ve been in the legislature for 20 years. My office door is always open,” he said.
Some of the initiatives Leonhardt is passionate about include efforts to expand production of specialty crops like mushrooms, and agro therapy for veterans and traumatized first-responders.
“We're actually coordinating the instruction of an agro therapy [program] at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Huntington, which is one of four in the country. And I'm hoping that ours becomes the model that they use around the country.”
Leonhardt says he’s made his office more efficient during his first term. He says he’s developed a strategic plan and wants to be re-elected to continue to put the plan into action. He says he’s improving communications between the office and farmers, and that he’s working to deregulate antiquated laws to make farming easier.
“We've changed the attitude of the department from a heavy-handed regulatory agency to an educate-before-regulate agency. We want to make sure that agribusinesses in the state are able to comply with the food safety aspects, yet be successful at the same time.”
Eric Blend, a farmer in the Northern Panhandle, supports Leonhardt.
“He has really made some changes and added some key players in the department to really help out small-scale agriculture and just agriculture in general.”
Blend is referring to business coordinators in the restructured department who have been very responsive to his needs as he navigates the farming world in the region. He said he’s been able to share practical knowledge from the field with the department, and seen those ideas incorporated into policy. Blend was also invited to help lobby for legislation pushed by the department — specifically the Cottage Food Law, which legislators passed this year.
“So now home-bakers and producers, with proper labeling, can actually sell their goods in retail stores, gas stations, and online as well, as well as just selling it to your neighbor,” Blend said.
Another recent policy adjustment includes a micro dairy rule, designed for smaller dairy farmers who want to process their own milk and dairy products to sell locally. (It doesn’t legalize the sale of raw milk beyond existing herd-share agreements, by the way. That’s a different law.)
And Leonhardt has continued to try to cultivate the hemp industry in the state.
Leonhardt’s Democratic challenger, Beach was one of the sponsors of the Cottage Food Law. But he’s also well known for his enthusiasm and interest in developing the hemp industry.
“There's a lot of pieces to the hemp industry and to the legislation itself, because you have the state level, obviously, you have the federal level,” Beach said. “I'm trying to learn as much as I can. And the more I learned, the more I realized there's more to learn.”
Beach grew up on an 800-acre cattle farm here in West Virginia.
“My involvement in agriculture is not eight years, but 54 years,” he said. “We have a lot to bring to the table, we want to focus on what I call ‘ARC,’ and that's advocating, resources, and communication for the agricultural community.”
Former state Sen. Ronald Miller, a Democrat from Lewisburg, is among those who encouraged Beach to take up a campaign to run. Miller has an agritourism business in southern West Virginia. He remembers serving on the agriculture committee with Beach in the senate and said Beach is willing to tackle important agricultural projects.
“We're within a big percentage of the nation's population — they’re within a small drive from West Virginia. That's important. We should be looking at how do we tap that market?”
Beach said he’d focus more resources on promoting agricultural products grown in the state. He recently released a 10-point plan that emphasizes things like supporting educational initiatives to bring more agriculture into K-12 and higher ed institutions. He also wants to support farmers by expanding access to technology and create more regional networking between farms.