Commissioner having a harvest of success

FAIRLEA — While the governor’s office, the Legislature, and the judicial branch have faced storm clouds over the last few months, Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt is reaping a harvest.

One need only walk through the Gus R. Douglass Annex at the State Fair of West Virginia in Fairlea. It’s not just rides, concerts, and cotton candy. In the building – named for West Virginia’s longest-serving agriculture commissioner – you can find displays for West Virginia maple syrup, honey, beef jerky, jams, soaps, chili, and wine.

There were three wineries set up, up from one winery the year before – Leonhardt’s first year. There is a such a demand for in-state wineries to display at the state fair that there is a waiting list.

The Department of Agriculture staff, normally split between the commissioner’s office at the State Capitol Building and an office complex north of Charleston, moves to the Gus Douglass Annex at the state fair, where they continue their work, but also make sure the state fair is a well-oiled machine.

It’s the kind of smooth operation that one would expect out of a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. After running – and losing – as a Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner in 2012 to former state Senator Walt Helmick, Leonhardt ran for state Senate. He spent a term representing the 2nd District, spanning from Marshall and Monongalia counties in the north, to Calhoun and Gilmer counties in the south.

In 2016, he challenged Helmick again and won. Now with over two years left on his first time, Leonhardt says making a second run for agriculture commissioner was worth it.

“I’ve got one of the best jobs in the state,” Leonhardt said. “It’s not just me here, it’s my staff and all the employees in the Department of Agriculture. We touch the life of every West Virginian every day.”

The Department of Agriculture might be unknown to the masses unless you’re farming. The State Fair of West Virginia might be the only direct contact the public might have with the department, which is why department staff are everywhere to help, answer questions, and educate the public about the role agriculture plays in their lives.

“The state fair is certainly agriculture-based, even though there is a lot more than just agriculture things here,” Leonhardt said. “It gives the youth of our state a chance to show their hard work throughout the year in the livestock arena.”

“You go over to the West Virginia Building and see the ribbons on all the fruits and vegetables, pies, cakes, jellies, jams, honey that have been produced here in West Virginia,” Leonhardt said. “It gives these people a chance who are in the agricultural world to show off what they got.”

One way the department of helping producers of food products market themselves is through the West Virginia Grown campaign. West Virginia food-based businesses can apply to the program if their product is produced, grown, or manufactured complete in West Virginia.

“If we’re going to improve agriculture in West Virginia, we have to tell the story, so people will start to listen and accept the programs that we’re trying to do,” Leonhardt said. “We’re getting a great reaction.”

One way the department is gauging the success of West Virginia Grown is with the sale in the country store at the state fair. Leonhardt said that sales are up 20 percent over last year with 40 vendors participating. Of that number, 14 are brand new.

“That’s tremendous,” Leonhardt said. “That means the word is getting out. These people who are doing these value-added products, when they go to other fairs and festivals, they’re talking to others. Now those people are wanting to come here.”

Leonhardt said this enthusiasm is showing in many positive ways. Some people are quitting their jobs to start farm or food-based business. Current vendors are meeting up at events, such as the state fair, and collaborating on new products.

“We have maple syrup producers teaming up with wineries and making a maple-type wine,” Leonhardt said. “We have coffee vendors teaming up with local airports to carry West Virginia products. We have stores saying ‘hey, I like that product. Can I put it in my store?’ The vendor says sure. We’re seeing all the tell-tale signs of increased enthusiasm, increased desire, and increased pride in being a West Virginian in the food industry.”

The Department of Agriculture plays a large role in inspecting food, including meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables produced in the state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also works with the state department to inspect lumber intended for export. The department reports that lumber exports are up $20 million more than they were before Leonhardt took office in 2017.

“I’m going to take a little bit of credit for the budget surplus if that’s OK,” Leonhardt joked.

On Thursday, the department honored a family for having eight generations of farmers. Leonhardt wants the department to do all it can to keep traditional farmers in business. But Leonhardt says their efforts to encourage new farmers is working.

“We had a school teacher he was no longer teaching school,” Leonhardt said. “He’s now farming full time growing vegetables. I think that’s a tremendous sign of the times. Instead of losing farmers, we’re starting to gain farmers. They might not be the traditional farm family of 1863, but it’s the new modern way of farming.”

In order to look towards the future of farming in West Virginia, the department is seeking comments from the public for a strategic plan.

“We hope to have the strategic plan ready in the near future,” Leonhardt said. “Then I can take that plan to legislators and say this is what the people are looking at and this is what the farmers of West Virginia want, and this is the road map to get there.”

Another project for the department is its Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program. Designed to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the program recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide more assistance.

“The money is going to flow through the VA, but the Department of Agriculture is going to be the one doing the lion share of the lift on that program,” Leonhardt said. “We’re going to be helping veterans. We’re going to be helping first-responders. All these lessons we learned with veterans can be used to help anyone who has had a traumatic experience, because we know agriculture can be healing.”

The department is also working with the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, The West Virginia University Extension Small Farm Center and other partners on a Farm to School program. The program’s goals are twofold: increasing the amount of locally-grown and sourced foods used in schools; and encouraging the next generation of farmers.

Leonhardt is not resting on his locally-grown laurels. But it’s evident that he is very proud of what his department has accomplished since taking office.

“I’ve got a great job and a great staff. I couldn’t be prouder of anyone. I just had a gentleman come up to me thank us for the work our staff did with his fish farm,” Leonhardt said. “When you hear things like that, how can you not have a little bit of pride in the people who work for the Department of Agriculture?”