Commissioner of Agriculture candidate: WVDA has failed to develop a functional plan to help farmers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In an interview with the Appalachian Chronicle, West Virginia State Sen. Bob Beach, candidate for West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, criticized incumbent Commissioner Ken Leonhardt for failing to have a plan when entering office and throughout his tenure. He also didn’t mince words about Leonhardt hiring an out-of-state consulting firm from Pittsburgh early in his tenure to develop a plan for West Virginia farmers. While that process had legislative approval, the controversial decision led to the plan not being utilized. Beach explained that while the plan was not discarded, “They simply keep changing it each time someone objects to a portion of the content. Not one farmer was consulted in the process. They think nobody is listening to them.”
“It (farming) is hard work that requires not only families that are invested, but brilliant people. It is absolutely a team effort and families are the core of West Virginia farming.” — Bob Beach
West Virginia, argues Beach, can certainly develop its own agriculture plan. “Why did we have to go outside the state? We have wonderful agricultural institutions at WVU, West Virginia State University and several others throughout the state.” Beach pointed out that running a farm requires not only a strong body but a sharp mind. Speaking of his own experience as a child growing up on a large farm in Monongalia County, he shared, “Dad was the brains. It is hard work that requires not only families that are invested, but brilliant people. It is absolutely a team effort and families are the core of West Virginia farming.”
Beach speaks not only from personal experience, but also from listening to fellow farmers across West Virginia. Last week, he visited Salt Sulphur Springs and met with farmers and others from one of West Virginia’s most important agricultural counties. While there, a theme was raised repeatedly by farmers, whether one-on-one with Beach or in groups — the lack of a plan by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) to help West Virginia farmers expand their markets both locally and globally. Indeed, Beach spoke to that during his prepared remarks.
So, I followed up and asked him to elaborate.
Beach began, “First, let’s address his (Leonhardt’s) plan. He promised that on the first day he’d have a plan in place. He did not. But he picked a Pittsburgh group to map out a plan for West Virginia. Once it was exhibited, anyone that knew anything about agriculture in West Virginia knew it wasn’t practical.” Beach observed, “They’ve (the WVDA) been working on it for the last three years.” He said that again, farmers were essentially excluded and what has been developed is not functioning. It’s so chaotic, says Beach, that “No farmer wants to get involved.”
Beach pointed to his own ten-point plan for the WVDA, released earlier this year. In summary, it includes:
- Improved communication from the WVDA.
- Agriculture is essential to West Virginia economic development.
- All agricultural operations are important, regardless of size.
- As meat operations are taken off shore, provide safer food safety in transmission and storage.
- West Virginia can and should position itself as the bread basket for the millions living in the population centers of the eastern seaboard.
- Improve agricultural education. Indeed, he has proposed a Greenhouse project for schools.
- Improve higher educational opportunities collaboratively to establish certificate programs at two-year institutions.
- Embrace new technology.
- Focus on improving markets for the hemp industry.
- Focus on building relationships with and among West Virginia farmers and related industries.
He elaborated on how he intends to achieve these objectives.
His initial focus will be on regionalization and focusing on internal procedures to make sure they’re designed to help farmers, and will work with the legislature on needed updates to laws to streamline processes for farmers.
He said, “It is essential that we move to regionalization of processing. We will develop a network to build high tunnels and greenhouses.” He initially sees it as a public-private partnership with the WVDA providing a building, and the farmer providing the equipment. “Then we go,” he observed. After three years or so, he would expect the farmer to be self-sufficient.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “A High Tunnel System, commonly called a ‘hoop house,’ is an increasingly popular conservation practice for farmers, and is available with financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).” With high tunnel systems, says the USDA, no summer is too short or winter too cold because high tunnels: extend the growing season; improve plant quality and soil quality; reduce nutrient and pesticide transportation; improve air quality through reduced transportation inputs; and, reduce energy use by providing consumers with a local source of fresh produce.
Beach also intends to use regional collaboratives to provide produce to West Virginia’s public schools and help beef producers find markets.
A solid plan, he argues, will establish a partnership between the WVDA and West Virginia’s farmers that will help solidify West Virginia family farms as an indispensable aspect of West Virginia’s economy. “I’m the optimist. I think we need to get a message out to our farmers that there’s safety in numbers. Let’s work together.”
He added, “I keep talking about this all the time. We have to think of these family farms as small pieces of the puzzle.” Pointing out that West Virginia is forty-third in gross receipts from agricultural production, he argued, “It’s time to get out there in the field and advocate for the quality of products we are producing.”
A couple of examples were fresh on his mind. He pointed to a 71-year-old farmer near Welch whose produce earns him about $96,000 a year. “He doesn’t sell anything before he has a contract.” He commended the farmer for not only finding buyers for his crops, but for also realizing the tourism potential for his farm, as being close to the Hatfield and McCoy Trail, he sells a good deal of products to passers-by. Another farmer, in Mineral County, has an agribusiness which was a dairy operation. It now includes a corn maze, a petting farm, a barn for weddings and conferences, high tunnels, a pumpkin patch and more.
These farmers, argues Beach, such as those growing peppers for the salsa market, are just examples of the many innovations that family farms can imagine, but with WVDA’s support, can make realities.
The explosion of the spirits industry — in particular breweries — can help Mountain State farmers, argues Beach. “It’s a timing thing. The WVDA can help. We can connect the farmer with the brewer, establish a network so people can take advantage of what West Virginia has to offer.”
His ultimate goal is to get food safely from the farm to table. “Almost all of our farms are family owned. They know how to get food to the table. The WVDA needs to help them get it to their neighbors and beyond. We’re dropping the ball on promoting and advocating for produce and fresh meats. We need to promote West Virginia. We have a lot to offer.”