Diversification Still Needed in West Virginia

West Virginia is once again facing uncertain economic times as COVID-19 threatens our everyday lives and major projects, such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project shutdown. Both serve as stark reminders of how suspectable economies focused on singular industrial giants are to an economic crisis. State economies based on resilient industries, such as agriculture, are more stable during emergencies because these sectors cannot cease operations as they are necessary for survival. It was one of the reasons we advocated to state and federal leaders to keep our agri-businesses open during the initial response to this crisis. Our agri-businesses have flourished as they have adapted to keep the food system moving forward, as well as keep their customers safe.

Farmers’ markets were the first to take measures to ensure public safety while serving their local communities. Many adopted guidelines issued by the WVDA or found creative solutions like the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market Drivethru operation. These markets became especially important as restaurants were forced to close resulting in an influx of food hoarding via commercial supermarkets. The commercial food system could not react quick enough and food became scarce, so folks turned to their local farmer to fill nutritional gaps. Since the shutdown in March, many of these markets have continued to operate normally while seeing an uptick in local demand.

Kinks in our national food chain supply have shown how important local food options are to the system as a whole. Many consumers who felt the bottleneck firsthand turned to local agri-businesses to either find the foods they were unable to secure or to simply support our small businesses. As a result, West Virginia agri-business continue to report increased sales during the COVD-19 pandemic. In particular, community supported agriculture (CSA) have seen huge jumps in subscriptions as consumers seek reliable supplies of healthy, fresh foods.

As outbreaks within large-scale processors halted production, many grocers were forced to limit the number of certain commodities customers could purchase. To fill these demands, many local processors saw increased requests from their customers. Custom or state-inspected slaughter facilities are now experiencing four to six months of back orders. At the national level, discussions surrounding the decentralization of meat processing and the removing of restrictions, such as locally processed meats inability to cross state lines, are now are a part of policy talks to bring resiliency to the food system. This is all thanks to a heightened demand and awareness for local foods.

What this means for West Virginia is we must focus on industries than have proven they are imperative to an economic crisis. Relying on only a few giants to carry the burden is not a sustainable model for the future. Economic diversification is not a new concept as it frequently comes up during budget shortfalls, but the everyday citizen has seen the flaws within our system during this pandemic. Agriculture is one of those sectors we should be investing in as it not only creates better health for our economy but also for the environment and our citizens. Regardless of how West Virginia leaders react to this pandemic, consumers are going to adapt, and they are going to demand more local food options.

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.