As a fiscal conservative, I strongly believe government should strive to keep budgets in check, find efficiencies and use taxpayers’ dollars wisely in our efforts to keep tax burdens low. When governments act in good faith, markets can flourish, and the citizenry can be lifted into prosperity. At the same time, as a former business owner and current agency head, I understand the importance of investing in vital services, infrastructure and most importantly, people. While I agree with the effort to keep our budget flat and reduce taxes burdens, I am disappointed we continue to ignore vital improvements to our state that support our agricultural industries.
The pandemic, growing budgets and an aging population have changed the immediate priorities and needs for West Virginia. Some small businesses may never come back, people’s habits will change, and efforts must be taken to better prepare for future emergencies. Leaders need to face the reality that our state will struggle to recover from COVID-19 if we do not spend tax dollars wisely. Policy makers must take the time to ensure every dollar spent is used wisely and benefits future generations. Budgets must either be justified or face cuts if we are to find ways to reduce burdens on our citizens. What we choose to invest and not invest in will have lasting effects on West Virginia.
As Commissioner of Agriculture, it is easy to advocate for investments that help those who grow our food. The pandemic brought to light many issues but most importantly how fragile our centralized food system is as it currently exists. As we experienced bottle necks in the food supply, demand on local food systems increased. The WVDA stepped in to assist local farmers and producers in the effort to feed our communities. The demand also put a strain on Department resources and local food systems, but the problem is that the Department continues to operate on budgets nearly identical to those of 13 years ago. In addition, we lack any mechanism for major investments into our agricultural industries. This is despite taking on more responsibility such as Grade A Milk, the Cedar Lakes Conference Center and an industrial hemp program, not to mention two pay raises for state employees.
As much as we try to help foster economic growth through local food systems, we continue to see very little support and our facilities and programs continue to be ignored. We need additional funding for meat inspections and to make greater investments into food manufacturing. Both will create additional jobs as well as provide a more secure food supply for the state. Producers need assistance marketing local products through a comprehensive West Virginia Grown branding program. West Virginia farmers need help increasing access to local markets, as well as bringing in more agritourism opportunities to the Mountain State. Most importantly, we need to ensure a safe and reliable food system by bringing the WVDA laboratories into the 21st Century.
As we continue to discuss recovery from the pandemic, agriculture must be taken more seriously as an avenue for economic development. I have repeatedly said the West Virginia Department of Agriculture touches the lives of every West Virginian every day, and that remains true. It’s no secret that to fight any disease, we need good health which requires a healthy and sustainable food supply. Let’s be proactive and not take our food supply for granted.
In the coming weeks, our Legislature will have to make some hard choices that will dictate the future of West Virginia for years. My hope is that our leaders chase pragmatic solutions and not philosophical dreams. Let’s make the right decisions and tough choices, now.
Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture