Ag Commissioner Sees Opportunity in Hemp, Forestry

Feb 28, 2017

Each legislative session, the state’s Constitutional Officers, or the heads of government offices who are elected by the people, bring their priorities to lawmakers and ask for support for various legislative changes.

Commissioner Kent Leonhardt in 2016 speaking during a Senate floor session.
Credit Martin Valent / West Virginia Legislative Photography

This year, newly elected Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt is hoping to change the structure of government, expand a growing program that’s been controversial in some parts of the country, and incentivize the purchasing of West Virginia-grown products. 

Elected in November, Leonhardt ran on a platform of finding new niche agricultural products to put West Virginia on the map. And House Bill 2453 just might provide a boost for that product.

"I think we need to move forward with the industrial hemp program," Leonhardt said Monday on The Legislature Today.

During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers, including Leonhardt who was a member of the state Senate at the time, voted to make it easier for researchers in the state to get a permit to grow industrial hemp.

It’s a plant in the cannabis family that is illegal to grow because of federal drug laws. Hemp has a much lower level of THC, the mind-altering drug of other cannabis plants like marijuana, and can be used to create any number of products.

“They make purses out of it, they tell me that the body armor you make out of it can be stronger than Kevlar," Leonhardt said. "There are thousands of products out there that people talk about using.”

But state law currently only allows researchers taking part in university studies to grow hemp. House Bill 2453 would change that though, allowing the agriculture commissioner to provide licenses to commercial growers as well.

West Virginia-grown hemp that’s going to be turned into a variety of products has to stay in West Virginia, though. Because the plant is an illegal substance under federal law, it can’t be shipped across state lines.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, according to Leonhardt, who said a fresh crop could attract new businesses and manufacturing jobs, but it poses a small problem.

“It’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg and the cart before the horse kind of thing," he said. "You have to get the growers to grow it, but then you also have to have the manufacturers come in."

"So, there’s going to be a little bit of a challenge there, but I believe we can work our way through it.”

Leonhardt is backing another bill that he says poses a similar problem, -- the West Virginia Fresh Food Act. The bill will also be discussed by members of the House Agriculture Committee today and would require all state-funded institutions, like schools and prisons, to purchase 20 percent of their fresh produce from in-state farmers.

“It’s helping create a market for fresh foods in West Virginia," he said. "We’re obviously importing more than we’re growing.”

Leonhardt's interview begins at the 20 minute mark. 

But Leonhardt said that could change if farmers had steady buyers to produce for. Again, the chicken and the egg, but Leonhardt said he’s working with privately owned regional aggregation centers to make sure those supplies are there should lawmakers choose to move the bill forward.

Leonhardt is also asking lawmakers to consider restructuring state government to bring the Division of Forestry under his authority. The commissioner said trees should be considered a crop, one that just takes slightly longer to grow. 

“When you look at what’s happening with our state’s resources, we’re one of the most forested states in the nation, we’re number 3, and we’re number 2 in hardwoods per square mile," he said. "We’re growing trees at a rate of 2.5 times the rate of harvest, which means we could harvest our trees at twice the rate we currently are and not lose our natural beauty.”

The bill is likely to draw pushback from some environmental groups who disagree with Leonhardt’s assessment that trees are a crop, but Gov. Jim Justice has also pushed to increase timbering to revitalize the furniture manufacturing industry in the state.