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.