NASDA Member Spotlight: Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia Department of Agriculture

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How do you start your day?

My day usually starts with either hitting the road or being briefed by my staff. Either way, this leads into a morning and afternoon that consists of meeting with individuals that want to grow agriculture in the Mountain State. A lot of those conversations end with a question, a vision and a path forward. How we can leave a better West Virginia for our children and grandchildren?

What is the most important function of your department?

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s most important function is protecting a safe, reliable food system. Our employees are the front line for food safety in the state. Last time I checked, 4 out of 4 people still eat on a daily basis. Besides our regulatory function, we believe the department has a responsibility to bring partners, private and public, together. Since I took office in January of 2017, my staff and I have found numerous times where organizations are working towards the same goals, but are not talking to one another. We want to break down those silos to ensure we push forth good, common sense government for the people of West Virginia.

What is the most rapidly expanding sector of agriculture or commodity in West Virginia?

West Virginia is seeing huge growth in specialized commodities such as maple syrup and honey, as well as within our local food systems. Our maple syrup producers continue to tap more trees every year resulting in a 33 percent increase in syrup production. We have more sugar maple trees than Vermont. The potential for this industry is immense. From veterans to hobby beekeepers, more and more West Virginians are managing their own colonies. Beekeeping clubs are on the rise as thousands of people now call themselves beekeepers in the Mountain State. Lastly, as we see big, retail groceries leave rural areas, people are turning back to growing their own food to fill the void. Moving forward, look for agriculture as a tool for turning around the economies of our rural communities.

Why is the Farm Bill important to West Virginia?

One of the most important features of the Farm Bill to West Virginia is the Specialty Crop Block Grants. From high tunnels in our local schools to start up monies for budding entrepreneurs, West Virginia has greatly benefited from these grants. High tunnels are important because we must turn away from the “heat and serve method” of cooking that our schools currently use. Our children have suffered as obesity and other health problems are on the rise. Farm to School provides healthier food options and teaches our kids the science behind the food we eat. As far as our entrepreneurs go, startup costs tend to be the biggest barrier to those who want to start a business. These grants are vital to our mission to turn West Virginia’s struggling economy around through agriculture. We need to start thinking about agriculture like any other business sector. We need to take agriculture-based businesses seriously.   

Poultry and Livestock make up the bulk of agricultural receipts in the Mountain State. Combined these two sectors make up more than 70 percent of the $800 million agriculture brings to West Virginia. The cooperative agreements we have with USDA on meat inspection and predator control must continue. If we were to lose these programs, it would be devastating to West Virginia agriculture and our economy. We have great partnerships with USDA and we hope funding will be provided to continue these programs.

Commissioner Leonhardt on his farm with baby lambs.

In seven words or less, what is some advice you would offer your fellow agriculturalists?

Vision plus hard work equals success!

Commissioner Leonhardt talking to the head of the Boy Scout Jamboree on site at the Summit Bechtel Reserve
Commissioner Leonhardt at the State Fair of West Virginia
Commissioner Leonhardt being interviewed at the Annual FFA Ham, Bacon and Eggs Sale held at the West Virginia Capitol