Leonhardt, Guthrie to Challenge Helmick for Agriculture Commissioner Position
When voters go to the polls on November 8th, they’ll be tasked with deciding who will lead the state’s agriculture industry. The two major party candidates see the Commissioner of Agriculture as someone who can diversify the state’s economy, but have different opinions about what that diversification looks like.
Walt Helmick is seeking his second term as Agriculture Commissioner. His competition is Republican Kent Leonhardt and Libertarian Buddy Gurthrie.
Helmick has held public office since 1988 when he was first elected to the House of Delegates. In 1990, he was elected to the state Senate, serving in a variety of leadership roles, including as Finance Committee chair. He held the position until he became Agriculture Commissioner in 2012. Helmick said during his time in the office, he’s focused on diversifying the state’s economy through agriculture and he wants to make sure the programs he’s started continue.
"This is the first time we’ve seen movement in agriculture in West Virginia in almost 100 years now and we have structure in place that’s going to move this state forward, we’re going to be a part of diversification of our economy," Helmick said.
Helmick has worked to improve or create Farm to Table and Farm to School efforts across West Virginia--local programs that coordinate with small farmers to get local food into schools, businesses, and in the average West Virginian’s kitchen.
Helmick also began a potato pilot project that’s headed into its third year. The Department of Agriculture is working with and supplementing 37 potato growers on the western side of the state. Helmick hopes to have a million pounds grown in the next year.
As part of the potato growing program, the department is in the process of developing aggregation centers to help clean and process the potatoes for selling. So far, they’ve opened one in Huntington in an old National Guard Armory building, but Helmick said they could have as many as two more up and running in the next year in Beckley and in Belle in Kanawha County.
Eventually, the sites will be used to do more than just process potatoes, but will clean and package other crops as well.
Helmick said each aggregation point costs the state about a half a million dollars to start. The Department of Agriculture’s budget has been cut by more than 3 million dollars in the past few years, but Helmick said these centers are still a good investment. The Department of Agriculture pays for them with money generated from the severance taxes earned on department owned land.
"We put that money that we generate off timber sales and the selling of natural gas and we put it into our aggregation points," Helmick said.
But Republican candidate Kent Leonhardt says the potato growing program just can’t work in West Virginia. Leonhardt lost to Helmick in 2012 and ran a successful race in 2014 for state Senate. That’s where the Monongalia County farmer and retired Marine currently serves as the chair of the Senate Military Committee and the Vice Chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.
Leonhardt also believes the state’s next agriculture commissioner should be looking to diversify the economy through farming, but says growing products like potatoes, products that other states are already successfully growing and selling in bulk nationwide, isn’t the right direction for West Virginia.
"What we need to do is capitalize on niche marketing, I visited a small farm that’s exporting duck eggs from West Virginia," Leonhardt said. "They found a niche market and those are the types of businesses we need to encourage."
Aside from just potatoes, Helmick is also working to encourage growth in the state’s beef industry, but a recent department purchase of cattle caused some controversy. The Department of Agriculture bought four angus beef cows from an out-of-state auction which Helmick said will be used to breed new cattle in West Virginia, but Leonhardt calledthe purchase a misuse of government funds and went as far as calling on a legislative committee to investigate the purchase and perform a full audit of the department.
"The people out there are telling me that we want some accountability in government," Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt’s call for an audit was also supported and publicized by the West Virginia Farm Bureau. Helmick said the cattle controversy is just election season politics.
"We welcome any type of inquiry into our department or into anything that we do," Helmick said. "I’ve been very clear about it over the years. We’ve been cut $3.2M and then stripped of our special revenue accounts, but we have to be innovative and elections happen."
Helmick said West Virginians purchase more than $7 billion worth of food each year, but only produce about $1 billion worth of those products. The next commissioner, he said, should be looking to increase that number and both candidates are confident they can.