Commissioner of Agriculture candidate Bob Beach meets with farmers and others in Monroe County
SALT SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — West Virginia State Senator Bob Beach, the Democratic candidate for West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, visited here Thursday, Sept. 24 in the heart of the Mountain State’s southern farming region.
About 35 people turned out on an overcast evening to hear Beach speak at the historic Salt Sulphur Springs Hotel, owned by Betty Farmer.
Beach, who was born in Monongalia County, grew up on an 800 acre family cattle farm. For nearly two decades, he has been on the Agriculture Committee during his service in both the West Virginia House of Delegates from 2001-2011 and the West Virginia State Senate from 2011 to the present.
At Farmer’s colonial structure, Beach spent the vast majority of his time interacting with voters individually or in small groups as trucks rumbled by on adjacent U.S. 219. His prepared remarks focused on the need to have a Commissioner of Agriculture that listens first, figures out what can be done to help, and then does it. As he travels West Virginia, he said, he hears the same story from Mountain State farmers everywhere — their family farms are in peril and they need a more supportive Department of Agriculture that actually has a plan to support them. That, too, is what he often heard here. After his prepared remarks, he spent about 45 minutes taking questions. There was not a lack of ideas from those actually doing the work of farming or supporting them. He promised that just as they were seeing at the moment, he would provide an attentive ear as Commissioner of Agriculture.
If you want to get to know West Virginia take time and share an evening with a farming family. The stories are rich and honest, and always from the heart.” — Bob Beach
Previous to the event, I interviewed Beach. It is offered in a Q&A format below.
Q: Why are you seeking to be West Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture?
A: In February 2019 I was invited to meet with farmers from across southern West Virginia to have an open discussion on the subject of the state of agriculture for farmers in West Virginia. After several hours of just allowing them to vent they asked if I was up to the task of campaigning for Commissioner. Honestly, they didn’t need to twist my arm all that much. Several egg salad sandwiches later and I was all in.
Q: What experiences, qualifications and talents do you possess which you believe will serve you well in this capacity?
Beach: I have been elected to serve as a member of the West Virginia State Senate three times. This followed my time in the House of Delegates for 5 terms. This adds up to 20 years in the legislature. Spanning that time, I have been a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. I was also chosen to serve as the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture under Speaker of the House Bob Kiss. During this time in the legislature I have been and still am a member of the Southern Legislative Conference, Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development; and have been a member of the WVU Davis School of Agriculture Visitation Team. I was raised on a large Angus beef cattle farm north of Morgantown, trained in meat merchandising and food safety, previously a meat commodities buyer, 24 years of management; all in all, 54 years of agricultural experience…from farm to State House. I studied at Fairmont State University – Political Science and Spruce School of Real estate. I also own and operate a small high tunnel. I am a native West Virginian, born and raised.
Q: What will be your top priorities as Commissioner of Agriculture?
Beach: In short, to get our farms in order. Presently there is lack of advocacy for the farmer, lack of resources and failed communication between the farmer and the WVDA. Simply by asking the question, “how can we help you,” will resonate in a positive manner. Education about the importance of agriculture is also needed. I am always surprised by how little importance is given to agriculture by the general public. We all consume food. I for one like knowing that I’m consuming fresh wholesome foods each time I sit down to dinner. Marketing our agricultural community also needs to be a priority. Today we can find numerous videos and pieces of literature promoting the WVDA, but little resources are dedicated to promoting our goods that are grown here in West Virginia. We need to push our message beyond our state borders.
Q. I asked a farmer recently if he was planning on voting for you. He said, “I need to meet him first.” However, his schedule hasn’t aligned with any of your campaign visits in this area.. I asked him what he would like to ask you. He countered, “Nothing. I just want to meet him and look him in the eyes.” So, to those voters who are unable to meet you personally, if they did, what would you say to those who want to “look into your eyes”?
Beach: I would simply begin with the question, how can I help you? And then listen. All too often the current Department Administration wants to project answers to problems before they hear the issue. That procedure is upside down. I’m an old retailer at heart. Customer service was job one in the grocery business. It is the foundation of all businesses, and after all is this not what all state agencies should be striving to accomplish? Positive public relations.
Q: There are 23,000 family farms in West Virginia. Please discuss the role of the family farm in West Virginia and what your vision is for improving community sustainability through family-owned farms, community farming and co-ops.
Beach: Family farms are the smaller pieces that build an even greater puzzle. Once you have all the pieces locked in place the complete image certainly opens the prospect of competing on a larger scale. Many of our counties and communities still desire to have Farmers Markets in place. Sadly, a functioning network of farmers has yet to be achieved in smaller markets. Another sustainable practice for generational farming is education. We will continue to expand opportunities for West Virginians to have a pathway to completing certifications and degrees in a variety of agri-education curriculum. This will give families a chance to provide ways to keep the next generation in the state as well as grow opportunities in economic development which would include co-ops. This should and shall be the role of the WVDA. We must be active participants, and not just showing up for photo-ops and to collect fees and dues.
Q: Discuss your plans for working with significant agricultural livestock and crop producers to help them access out-of-state markets.
Beach: Now more than ever processing facilities are needed, however it’s very expensive to go it on your own. A couple of things come to mind. New processing facilities could be constructed on lands owned by the WVDA, reasonable leases could be provided. Another area of concern is the cost of having a USDA Inspector on premise full-time. Perhaps sharing this cost with the private sector for the first three years, thus bridging that difficult period that new start-ups face. Here too is where advocacy plays well for our local farms, assisting in the networking of our commodities outside of our state borders.
Q: You have been critical of the challenges facing hemp farmers because of what you term a “restrictive and inept” approach. What has been done wrong, and what are your plans to correct the mistakes you’ve identified?
Beach: Testing is the first thing that comes to mind. It is having a negative impact on production. Farmers complain testing is taking too long to complete, causing tests to exceed THC permitted levels and inability to get the product into the marketplace. Growers also face excessive fees for testing. A flat fee is charged, however travel expenses to collect the sample is included as well. Sometimes multiple fields are owned by one individual within minutes of each other, yet a separate travel fee is assessed to each field as if the field agent drove from Charleston to collect the sample at different times. The latter can be easily corrected. On the other hand, field testing can take one of two approaches, either hire additional sample collectors or allow growers to employ the services of a private firm to sample and submit results to the WVDA. Obviously the WVDA would still need to maintain oversight. I’m inclined to go with private collecting.
Q: Please discuss the challenges facing dairy farmers and your plans to address those challenges.
Beach: WV has lost 50 percent of our Dairy Farms in the past five years. Many states have experienced this loss as well. We can probably make the assumption it is due to an aging population who own these farms and children not wanting to follow into the family business thus a loss of milk production occurs or a more likely scenario is the fact many dairy farms are selling at or under cost of production. I believe, as do others, that we can stem the bleeding and rebuild herds simply by offering a tax credit whenever milk is sold at levels below cost of production. This approach is nothing new South Carolina offers this same credit up to $10,000. The only change I would make is that the farmer can only take this credit up to three years out of every five. We want to ward off anyone getting into the business just for the purpose of the tax advantage.
Q: You’ve put forth the idea of having greenhouses on high school campuses. Please explain why you have done so and elaborate a bit on how you see it working and accomplishing.
Beach: As a legislator we always seek the path of least resistance when working legislation. My most common question on the campaign trail is, how can we get greenhouses into our schools? In this particular case I intend to propose legislation instructing the School Building Authority to require greenhouses be included anytime a new school building project is to be constructed or anytime we remodel a school in order to add classroom space. Greenhouses are in fact classrooms. The price of adding a greenhouse during construction is a far simpler approach than trying to find money at a later time for individual school requests.
Q: In your new commercial, you state, “Seemingly family and farming go hand-in-hand, something only a West Virginian would understand.” Some industries, however, hold the view that farming is not nearly as important to West Virginia as extracting coal, gas and oil. However, the world economy is such that both coal mining and fracking are proving too costly to produce. And, the world is transitioning to more sustainable energy options. What role can agriculture play in West Virginia to help those being affected now, and in providing options for our high school and college graduates?
Beach: I believe so strongly in agriculture as an economic opportunity that if I had it my way I would embark on an extensive ad campaign promoting Agriculture. Billboards along our by-ways would include, Farmers Wanted. Set your own hours and income. Yes it’s hard work, but rewarding. Even at the smallest level. I can’t tell you how many front porch farmers I’ve met that just want to talk about their tomatoes and peppers. You sense the pride and it brings a smile to my face. Education needs to begin earlier. That’s just one more reason I’m pushing for greenhouses. It’s important to understand how plants grow and how food makes its way to our tables. It’s also important to know Ag. Education has almost limitless tracks. Agriculture is a STEM pathway. Leading into numerous career opportunities. West Virginia does a great job with regards to Ag Science programs, but we can do better. Pathways must be made available which allow earned transferable college credit for work accomplished. We might be surprised by what a non-traditional student might do once he/she has earned their first few college credits.
Q: According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture County Profile for Monroe County, farmers here rank 9th in the state in agricultural production out of the state’s 55 counties. With nearly 1,000 family farms, only 65 percent have internet access. Will you work to improve that percentage so that farmers would have increased access to markets?
Beach: Quick answer, yes. Rural development is essential to the entire state and should include; water and sanitation improvements, and broadband access.
Q: As you review that profile and those of all of West Virginia’s counties, where do you see agricultural gaps and overlaps? In short, what markets can still be tapped, and what markets are farmers overproducing for in Monroe County and West Virginia?
Beach: Presently hemp is being overproduced. We lack the framework to make it a viable proposition. We lack processors. Additionally, growers are still focused on the CBD oils and ignoring the fiber material. The long term financial gains can be found in the fiber use. I personally believe many of our topography challenged counties are being overlooked. Land is relatively inexpensive. Certain livestock adapt well to hilly terrain, hogs, goats, and sheep come to mind. If the sunlight can reach it, small lots offer an opportunity to build out our high tunnel network and become much needed suppliers to our Farmers Markets.
Q: What have you learned as a West Virginia legislator that you believe will help you in serving as West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture?
Beach: Building relationships are essential. An open door policy is also key. I don’t care what your politics might be, but if you have a problem come on in, grab a chair and let’s talk it through. Communication is everything and presently this seems to escape our current Commissioner.
Q: What are you proudest of regarding your time as a state senator?
Beach: Two moments come to mind. Both are local to my county. Since 2002 each new Administration, aside from Governor Tomblin, has worked to relocate a state tech organization (WVNET) to Charleston under the premise that we needed to consolidate our State Technology Network. To date four different attempts have been made to relocate WVNE; each time I was successful in keeping WVNET in Monongalia County, as well as the 70 individuals employed there. My fear is that once I secure the seat as Commissioner they’ll be no one to fight for them. Secondly, I take pride in a large economic development project known as Tax Increment Finance District (TIF) legislation. It allowed the County to develop a retail/professional business park on 600 plus acres, much of it is post-mine land. To date we have several large office buildings, hotels, eateries, and a brand new WVU baseball park. By the way, the TIF does not cost the taxpayer one single dime.
Q: If you were to give a “State of West Virginia’s Agriculture” speech, summarize what you would say.
Beach: I’m not sure how to answer this question. If it occurs in the first month in office I would need to discuss our plans and goals. Future of the Department. A year from now I’m confident we will be discussing how we have achieved our goals and are now setting the bar even higher. One thing I should point out. I’m walking into the office on my first day with a staff that understands agriculture and a plan of action and goals. Just today, I discovered the current Commissioner is still working on his strategic plan from four years ago.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add as voters consider your candidacy?
Beach: West Virginia and farming go hand in hand. I bring a unique perspective to the table that only a West Virginian can offer. I’m native West Virginian. I was raised in a family where farming was part of every dinner conversation…my father taught Ag Sciences for 35 years and the combined incomes of a teacher and cattle farmer fed a wife, six children, and a field hand or two. I don’t take the issue of agriculture lightly. It has value and the people are its biggest and brightest resource. If you want to get to know West Virginia take time and share an evening with a farming family. The stories are rich and honest, and always from the heart.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2020