Kent Leonhardt

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner, Kent Leonhardt, spoke at a roundtable discussion regarding agricultural opportunities in Southern WV

PRINCETON — Possibilities agriculture offers for new businesses and creating jobs were explored Monday when the head of West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture visited Mercer County and spoke with local leaders.

Commissioner of Agriculture Kent A. Leonhardt had a roundtable discussion at the Memorial Building in Princeton about the opportunities that farming and other agricultural activities offer the county.

“I’m here to highlight the economic development possibilities for agriculture in the state of West Virginia. We firmly believe that agriculture can one of the pillars that helps with the economy in West Virginia,” Leonhardt said.

Boosting agriculture’s economic contributions involves initiatives such has changing state regulations a little, increasing overseas sales of timber without hurting the state’s natural beauty, and making sure people understand the benefits of having local food industries. The state’s current Fresh Foods Act requires state institutions to spend five percent of their food dollars at West Virginia producers. Local food producers are very important, he said.

“It’s good food, good health for our citizens, good for the health of our economy, and also good for our environment,” Leonhardt stated.

Having more state institutions buy their food from West Virginia producers is good for the economy and improves food safety, he added.

“We get to keep those dollars in the state of West Virginia. The shorter the time food travels, we can maybe save some of the energy costs and return some of that to the West Virginia farmer and at the same time, we can make sure that we reduce the chances for unforeseen foodborne illnesses as well,” he said.

The state Department of Agriculture is also working to encourage a new generation of agricultural leaders by promoting 4-H and Future Farmers of American (FFA) organizations “because it’s our youth that is going to make West Virginia great again in the future,” Leonhardt said. “We want to make sure they’re well trained and understand the purposes and the importance of agriculture. Most people take for granted that we eat from a safe and affordable food supply.”

One new agricultural business that’s ready to grow in West Virginia is hemp farming. West Virginia one of the pilot states in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, now the 2018 Farm Bill, that removes hemp from the schedule of drugs and controlled substances, he said.

“The industry’s about ready to take off. We are right now waiting for the rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then we’ll take our program and match it with what the USDA wants us to do to regulate this crop, and then we’ll move forward from there,” Leonhardt said. “This is a great opportunity for the state of West Virginia and we are seeing an increased interest from West Virginia farmers.”

Local leaders from the Chamber of Commerce of the Two Virginias, the City of Princeton, Mercer County Commission and other local entities attended Monday’s meeting.

“Actually, at our office, we feel it’s our job to support jobs and investment in Mercer County so we’ve been highlighting different industries over the past few months,” Mercer County Economic Development Authority Executive Director John O’Neal said.

“Agriculture is often overlooked as an economic development driver. We have thousands of acres of pasture land and crop land that’s in play in Mercer County, but it’s not like there’s stores on the street corners where people are doing these things,” O’Neal said. “They’re doing them on their own property, so we’re trying to encourage people to get into the farms and agriculture business, but we’re also looking at ways that we can encourage some of the manufacturing side, some of the processing side and encouraging investment.”

Princeton City Manager Mike Webb said agriculture offered economic development opportunities for the city and the surrounding area. County Commissioner Bill Archer added that Mercer County was primarily an agricultural area during the first 50 years of its existence.

Leonhardt said all the state’s counties are being urged to look at agriculture for economic development.

“We want to encourage every county to get involved in that, so distribution of food is the shortest possible. We ave a new meat processing facility going up south of Charleston and we hope it becomes a model for redistribution throughout the state; and new agricultural endeavors could attract new residents,” he said. “I ask everybody to out there to know your farmer and know your food. And I think that’s just a good way to look at things for the state of West Virginia.”

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com