Commissioner is focused on growing agriculture in WV

West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said he was excited to be speaking at the Wayne County Economic Development Authority’s annual dinner at Heritage Farm Museum & Village on Thursday evening. “We are finally getting the word out that agriculture is a business,” he said. “It’s time we start taking agribusiness seriously.” Prior to the dinner, Leonhardt stopped by The Herald-Dispatch newsroom in Huntington to talk about his department’s vision for agriculture and requests he will be making to the West Virginia Legislature this year.

“I believe West Virginia can be a cornucopia of specialty crops,” he said. “We have mushrooms coming out of Wayne County going to New Jersey, and maple syrup production is growing in this part of the state. We have a lot of small hydroponics starting up, and we are trying to attract some of the larger hydroponic businesses into West Virginia so we can start growing more fresh fruits and vegetables our grocery stores are demanding.”

Leonhardt added that his department was continuing to identify the needs of West Virginia’s agribusinesses.”Part of our agenda will be to conduct an economic impact study to evaluate barriers to growth, as well as rising sectors in the agriculture industry,” he said. “The data will be used to develop a strategic plan for agriculture in conjunction with members of the West Virginia Agriculture Advisory Board’s steering committee.”

Leonhardt, Gov. Jim Justice and West Virginia University Extension Service relaunched the steering committee in July.”We have to have those who want to grow and sell the product and those who want to buy the product, and the state can help put those two together,” he said. Leonhardt says raising awareness of the importance of agriculture in West Virginia is a key component of his vision.

“We know agriculture has a place in West Virginia’s future,” he said. “Working with our partners, we will come up with a cohesive vision and strategy to grow agriculture in the state.” Leonhardt added that he has made several requests of the West Virginia Legislature for this session, including the transfer of the Division of Forestry to the Department of Agriculture.

“It was there originally when it was formed, but today the Division of Forestry is under the Department of Commerce right now,” he said. “Timber is a crop, and the Department of Agriculture is responsible for crops in the state. Forestry is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so we could better align there as well.” Leonhardt says his biggest agenda item for the Legislature is to develop a capital improvement fund to rebuild the WVDA laboratories in Guthrie, West Virginia.

“I am asking the Legislature to provide me the flexibility in my budget so that I can build a savings account for the labs,” he explained. “This has been a problem that has been recognized for over 20 years, and nothing has been done about it. My priority is to get the labs rebuilt.” Leonhardt said he is also asking for funding for the WVDA Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program.

“There are veterans that tell us they owe their lives to our Veterans and Warriors program, but it has never been funded by the Legislature,” he said. Leonhardt is requesting $250,000 for the program, which he says he could turn into grants worth millions of dollars to the state. “There are many veterans agriculture grants that require matching funds, so we are leaving money on the table because we don’t have the money to match it,” he said.

Leonhardt says he is also asking the Legislature to streamline regulations to reduce barriers on West Virginia producers. “One of the barriers is lending,” he said. “We don’t have the dollars to make the $5,000 to $25,000 loans that are needed. We have a rural loan program, but we don’t have a lot of money in there to help producers. We also want to make sure all the rules for producers are the same.”

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