Our farmers have always been one of the most respected professions in America, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance agriculture plays in our daily lives. Evident in a recent Gallup poll, which ranked agriculture and farming, for the first time in twenty years, as one of the most favorable U.S. industrial sectors. With 69 percent of Americans viewing agriculture in a positive light – an 11-point bump from the previous year – it is clear that agriculture has found a new appreciation during this pandemic. This renewed appreciation has led to many tangible positive results for West Virginia’s agricultural economy, including increased farm sales, growth within farmers’ markets and emphasis on nutrition programs.
Just this past year, we were notified that 5,000 more head of cattle are being raised in West Virginia. At the same time, USDA reports indicate that honey and maple syrup production are way up. Additionally, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and free seed programs have seen record subscriptions, and meat processors are experiencing huge back orders. We have even welcomed our first certified mushroom farm to the state. West Virginia and its producers are taking advantage of this shift to local by expanding agriculture through traditional and niche, specialty crops with the mission to feed our citizens; that is what we call economic growth.
Since farmers’ markets regulations were moved from local health to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture in 2018, the number of known farmers’ markets more than doubled from 109 to 227. A lot of this growth can be attributed to much needed changes to cottage food laws, a cultural shift to local production, as well as our efforts to keep agriculture open during the state shutdown. Increases in the number of markets means that local producers can tap into new market opportunities which increases access to fresh, local foods for our citizens. This win for West Virginia would have not been possible without the producers stepping up to fill nutritional gaps and the loosening of government regulations.
From SNAP Extension programs to increased awareness surrounding FARMacy, policy makers are finally seeing the value of healthy nutrition programs. These types of programs combine healthy, local produce with dietary guidelines to ensure healthier outcomes for participants. Their successes thus far have even attracted the attention of corporate grocery chains such as Walmart, who awarded a $658,000 grant to the West Virginia University Extension Service Family Nutrition Program to help West Virginians improve their health. Their goal is to increase access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods and research-based nutrition education. State leaders had already begun shifting support to these types of programs, but the pandemic further accelerated those efforts as we worked to ensure good nutrition for our most vulnerable populations. Regardless, quality nutrition is crucial to overcoming the current pandemic and future crises.
To ensure our agricultural economy continues to move forward, state and industry leaders need to work together to capture this renewed appreciation for the American farmer. Despite the challenges the pandemic has brought, it has forced consumers to think about our food chain differently. By placing an emphasis on fresher, healthier foods we can help foster lasting effects on our communities, as well as help create a self-reliance that can better prepare us for the future. This can occur only if we encourage consumers to really think about the food they eat and where it is grown. It will take education, as well as efforts to develop the next generation of farmers. But now is the time to have these crucial discussions. Let’s continue to highlight how important the American farmer is to our country.
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..