In advance of next month’s General Election, The Register-Herald invited all candidates on the ballot for U.S. Senator, U.S. House of Representatives, Governor, State Supreme Court, Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner to appear before our editorial board. During the next several days we will feature those in-depth interviews. Today’s candidate is Republican Kent Leonhardt running for Commissioner of Agriculture.
With the exception of just a couple years in the 1980s, West Virginia has had the same person as the Agriculture Commissioner for more than 40 years. What policies and agendas do you think are working within the Department of Agriculture and what would you change?
Leonhardt: Right now we have a great meat inspection program, which is one of the prime things. The Commissioner of Agriculture is charged in the Legislative rules, by law, with protecting the health of citizens, plants and animals and that includes the food safety portion of the requirements. They’ve got labs; they test quite extensively to make sure all West Virginians are eating healthy, safe foods — not necessarily all healthy foods, but definitely safe foods. Food safety is one of the biggest issues; and, I believe, just from the record, that the commissioner has done a very good job at that. So we want to make sure we maintain those standards of food safety within the state.
One of the things I think we need to expand in that area and make sure we have in place (is related to) the recent storms on June 29 that wiped out a lot of power. The average meal in West Virginia travels about 1,500 miles. Every time a meal changes hands ... there’s a risk for contamination to that food source. With the budget cuts looming, we need to be able to reduce that distance from producer to consumer and that would help with food safety within the state. If we can shorten the distance from producer to consumer, it helps with food security. Right now, there’s only a three to seven day food supply within the state of West Virginia. In the state of West Virginia, during those storms, the (Agriculture) Commissioner ... set up a home security division and they worked on distributing food to those areas that were running short.
What happens if that storm gets larger or the disaster is more widespread? You won’t be able to draw from the outlying areas. So, one of the things I want to make sure we have in place is basically sound plans, such as, almost like a military plan—this is where my military background comes into play—where you have plans: Where are the food drop off points; where can we get extra fuel for the distribution; where can we source food; how much more food can we store here in West Virginia, just in case of an emergency.
By having more food produced in West Virginia, that automatically increases the food security should we have a disaster and a shortage of food. That’s one of the things. The other things that I want to expand on is related to West Virginia being a 10-hour drive from 30 percent of the population of the United States. Think about that. We should be thriving economically. We should be exporting more. If we create a business environment that grows more agricultural businesses, and that excess of what West Virginians need, we can start looking at export markets. We need to expand that as well.
If you go down to the Southern Coalfields, they’ve got these 100-acre plots of flat land that have never been developed, but the government gave money to the coal companies under economic development, I understand. Why don’t we turn those things into agricultural resources and start restoring some of the jobs in southern West Virginia. It might not be coal jobs, they might not pay as much, but we can bring agribusiness in to create more work in those areas and use that land that’s just sitting there doing nothing.
Four years from now, where do you see West Virginia’s agriculture/farming sector; and, how do you plan to achieve this vision?
Leonhardt: We’ll have a good, solid plan in place to protect the citizens of West Virginia. One that will examine all the resources to make sure they’re being applied in the appropriate places. I see us doing more cooperative agreements with the (West Virginia University) School of Agriculture. I’d like to, within the first year, get a memorandum between myself and the new dean of the school on programs, facilities and personnel. There’s great people in both departments and they should be working together to achieve the goals we’ve talked about earlier: Food safety, exportation, increasing agribusiness within the state of West Virginia. That’s a start.
Deer farming has been a hot topic for the past several years in the Legislature. What is your position on private deer farms for use as providing a source of venison for sale and/or controlled hunts?
Leonhardt: If it’s behind a fence, it’s a farm. I know there’s some disagreement between the Department of Agriculture and the Division of Natural Resources. I’ve got a degree in wildlife management and I think we can work out those disagreements.
Right now, you can go to grocery stores and buy venison, but it’s not West Virginia-raised. Again, shortening that chain from producer to consumer will increase the safety of that food being consumed by West Virginians. And, I think with my background in wildlife, we can work out any differences and come to a great understanding with the Division of Natural Resources.
In my military experience, I’ve worked in joint-service environments with despaired interests. I’ve worked on joint-staffs and I’ve been able to successfully bring those despaired interests together into one cohesive plan for the benefit of all. I think we need to do that here with the Department of Agriculture and the DNR.
Explain how you plan to not only maintain the state’s current agriculture-related businesses, but also create and attract new ventures in the sector?
Leonhardt: Obviously, we want to maintain what we have. We want to create a business-friendly environment. Some of that’s going to have to be done on the Legislative side. West Virginia’s got a reputation of being a very litigious state and businesses are reluctant to come here. We need to work with the governor and the attorney general and create a more favorable business climate, number one.
But farmers, in general, if you give them a market, they will grow it. There’s some great things starting right now in the Farms to Schools programs. We want to see that continued and expanded and get the school boards to realize that those local schools can buy West Virginia-grown products. There’s high tunnel (greenhouse) technology out there right now; and, there’s cost sharing from the Federal government to build high tunnels, which is basically an inexpensive greenhouse where we can extend the growing season to 10 months. The growing season now fits within the school window at certain points of the year; and, that means we can provide fresh fruits and vegetables to our kids in school -- we want to do that. In the 2012 farm bill from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Federal government level, there’s a first-time veteran provision in it; and, hopefully that will stay in it when it gets passed through all the budget process. ... I’d like to see West Virginia be the model for Veterans. Being a veteran myself, it’s very important to me. I want West Virginia to be a model of bringing veterans (to the state) after they go to the service, serve their time. I want them to want to come to West Virginia. I want to see a business climate where West Virginia Veterans want to come back to the state that they love. Many of them do not right now. We can do that with agribusiness. Particularly with the provisions that are in the farm bill.
Imagine taking those provisions and teaming up with the coal companies that own the land in those coalfields in southwest West Virginia. We have a great opportunity to help revitalize that area and build a business. You ever go to the store and see the cucumbers that are ... in cellophane? Those are grown, from my understanding, in high tunnels, but outside West Virginia. Why aren’t we doing that here in West Virginia? That’s a perfect example.
Within the past few years there has been somewhat of a movement and emphasis on purchasing locally-raised, whole foods as alternatives to boxed, processed and mostly unhealthy foods. What are your thoughts about encouraging residents to buy locally-made agriculture products and do you think the Department of Agriculture should have a role in educating people of all ages about the importance of a healthy diet and encourage residents, who have the ability, to raise their own gardens?
Leonhardt: Yes to all that. The Department of Agriculture has a role to be the advocate for fresh, home/locally-grown food. I’ve got a sticker on my car that says “If you have food, thank a farmer.” Again, we have the opportunity to shorten that chain from producer to consumer --not have our vegetables coming from South America or farther south from the southern states. The cantaloupe that traveled from Colorado that was infected, that traveled all those miles, that had to be recalled. We have an opportunity to grow here locally, serve locally and then consolidate any excesses for the export market. Because, remember, 10-hours drive is fresh. We definitely want to encourage the local market.
Just how important to the role of Agriculture Commissioner is traditional farming? What other experiences and qualifications do you think are necessary for this office?
Leonhardt: I think it’s laid out in state law that you have to have been a practical farmer for 10 years prior to assuming (the Agriculture Commissioner) office. I think that’s very important. When you go before people -- organizations like the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture -- you have to have been a farmer to actually talk to those other people. That’s (National Association of State Directors of Agriculture) an advocacy group of all agriculture commissioners from around the country, and they meet annually and discuss issues. You have to have been in their shoes to discuss this with them. I also think it’s important, if you’re talking about the food safety, you have to have been somewhere in that food chain producing the food to be able to understand what it goes through. If you’re going to advocate for farmers, if you’re going to have any sincerity, you have to have been in the agriculture business of some form.
My wife and I started our farm from scratch. It had been abandoned for 40 years. We started with 205 acres. We bought additional property. We have 380 acres. We raise cattle, sheep and goat. We are what you’d call a traditional agriculture-based business at this time. Had I not been running for this office, we were getting ready to explore more local processing -- local sales of our meat. That was the next step on our business plan. I’d like to do that again some day, but first I have to take a time out from that business plan to be the commissioner of agriculture. So, yes, I think it’s very important that you have had some practical farming experience. I think it’s very important that you’ve lived the lifestyle.
You’re also charged at the Department of Agriculture with rural development. And, unless you’ve really lived in that rural development recently, how can you really understand? We live in a world with Internet issues, cable TV issues. My cell phone doesn’t work at my farm; and, there’s people that want to do things. ... My campaign manager was staying at my house for a while, but he couldn’t do the work he needed to on his computer because we didn’t have the connectivity. Some of the modern marketing techniques in agriculture require fast Internet service. We don’t have that out there. So, we have to develop that infrastructure in the rural (areas) if want we want the agribusiness to proceed beyond what the traditional agriculture was in West Virginia.
This is not a question, but an opportunity for you to summarize your campaign and tell the voters why they should elect you in November.
Leonhardt: This campaign is very simple. And, regardless of what the law says or anything of that nature, I am a farmer, my opponent does not farm. I am a Marine Veteran of 21 years. I’ve served my country; I want to serve again as Commissioner of Agriculture. I’ve worked in periods of stress, which is very important to the voters. During the first Gulf War, I had a 68-man Intel team. I know what it’s like to work under duress. That’s very important to the voters, particularly should we have any more storms or catastrophes and we have to feed the voters of West Virginia. I think the voters of West Virginia need to feel secure that somebody can take charge and lead an organization. The Department of Agriculture is large -- it’s got 350 plus employees. I was the executive officer, which is second in charge, of a battalion of 450 and I actually ran the staff that made that whole battalion run. So, I’ve led organizations the size of the Department of Agriculture. I already have that experience behind me. So, that’s where my military experience can really translate to a very important job within the state of West Virginia. On the other side of it, I’m very knowledgeable in agriculture. If you go back to my degree in wildlife management there’s an entomology classes, well, the Department of Agriculture runs an entomology lab for invasive species and insects to protect our forests within the state of West Virginia. I’ve taken animal livestock and meat science classes. We run our animal and meat science labs. The state has veterinarians that work for the department of agriculture. I’ve taken those pre-vet type classes. My educational background, if I had gone to WVU, it would be considered an agriculture degree; and, part of the state law says you must be learned in the science of agriculture. So, I fill those bills. I have the leadership skills, I have the knowledge. It’s a perfect fit for the state at this time. My father and mother raised me to make sure you do in your life for others the best you can within your abilities. I feel right now, this is my ability and this is where I can help the most number of people -- particularly the citizens of West Virginia.