As my team heads into its seventh Legislative session, we once again set off to advocate on behalf of agriculture, our farmers and West Virginia’s food supply. Each and every session, we work diligently to remind our lawmakers the value agriculture adds to the West Virginia economy and security of our citizens. Through our efforts, we have found ways to reduce burdens and barriers on our farmers, expand markets for producers, modernize our code and regulations and put in place protections for our farmland. While we still have so much to do, our priorities for this session will be advocating for investments in local food systems, as well as finding a pathway forward for our laboratory facilities.
As we continue to experience rising energy prices, supply chain issues and inflation, it is vital we invest in the resiliency of our energy and agricultural sectors. During the pandemic, we saw disruptions to our food chain that did and could have devasting effects at the local level. The most visible was grocery stores struggled to keep food on the shelves. Consumers turned to local producers which was only possible because we, at the Department of Agriculture, kept agriculture open. Imagine the state of our economy and effects on the food supply if we had bent to the calls for a broader shut down. Instead, we worked with other states to bring in excess commodities and keep our processing facilities open. We found ways to increase meat production by 200% and still today, we still benefit from a 50% increase in meat processing. All because we kept agriculture moving forward.
To continue our effort to foster local food systems, we must fund promotional programs such as the West Virginia Grown and Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture programs. We need to continue to support the growth of our local farmers markets, which have tripled in number since the Department took over their regulation. Our policy makers must put forth resources to attract more processors of all sizes, such as Mountaintop Beverage and Appalachian Abattoir. Both projects will increase our food manufacturing power which will benefit our economy as well as our citizen’s health. All these initiatives have been accomplished with little to no taxpayer dollars.
Despite a lack of investment, I am proud of the Department’s ability to expand our reach and programmatic response while not increasing the size of government. Comparing our current budget to FY 2008, we have seen only a $428,000 increase. When you include taking over Cedar Lakes Conference Center, Grade A milk authority, farmers markets, hemp regulations, implementing three across-the-board pay raises and establishing the Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program, we are operating on a 23% smaller budget than the Department of 15 years ago. At the same time, we have seen state spending increase upwards of 30% since 2008. Frankly, we are doing more with less, and it is time to reward the employees of the Department by upgrading the facilities they work in every day.
I am delighted by the work my staff and I have accomplished over these last six years, and you should be too. As fiscal guardians, we will never ask for more than we need, but there are necessary investments we must make to move agriculture forward in our State. That includes improving our top-of-the-line laboratory services by rebuilding and upgrading the Guthrie Complex. We are confident this is a worthy investment by the people of West Virginia and have done our due diligence to ensure we do it in the most efficient way possible. Regardless, it is time we make the necessary investments in agriculture, and I hope our lawmakers and you will heed our call.
Happy New Year and Semper Fi,
Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture