Op Ed: Local Agriculture Vital to West Virginia’s Economic Future

As the national food system came to a screeching halt in the early days of the pandemic, the demand for food increased, providing a unique opportunity for local agriculture. This opportunity was only possible due to the hoarding of supplies, the closure of restaurants and outbreaks in large scale processing causing an inability to garner normal goods from large chain grocers. To find the necessary nutrition, consumers were forced to turn towards local producers or processors to fill gaps. Luckily, our local farmers took this challenge head on forging a better relationship with consumers and showing the importance of home-grown agriculture to our wellbeing. With the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, this next growing season will determine if we learned our lessons of the past or will consumers revert to large scale agriculture.

There are plenty of signs that local agriculture is thriving in the Mountain State. Since the West Virginia Department of Agriculture took over the regulation of farmers’ markets, we have seen those markets double in number. This has been accomplished by reducing burdensome regulations to open new avenues for producers to sell their products. The other half of the equation is more and more consumers want to know their farmer. These customers value knowing how someone raises or grows their product and where exactly it comes from. It’s this commitment that can really help our communities experience economic growth, as well as create resiliency in case of future pandemics.

Another indicator of growth is the boom within local meat production. Over the last year, meat processing is up 200% and livestock slaughter up 41%. Most processors are telling their customers they are booked solid for the next year. This increased demand is a direct result of the lack of product we saw within our chain grocery stores. For this trend to continue, habits must change, but we also must scale up production by either expanding existing facilities or allowing new facilities to enter market gaps. What it will take is lifting some federal regulations, as well as local investments. The new Buzz Foods facility, located in Kanawha County, is a perfect example of an opportunity to grow our livestock industry and create greater access to local meats. We need to replicate their model throughout the state.

Unfortunately, not all agriculture industries saw a bump during the pandemic, and with June being National Dairy Month, it’s a perfect time to highlight and support West Virginia’s operations. A lack of increased demand is nothing new to U.S dairy, as consumption has plateaued in recent decades. At the same time, technology has brought efficiencies to the industry requiring less cows to maintain production levels. The solution is innovation by either creating micro-distilleries or adding value to the fluid milk with products such as cheese. Either avenue takes a commitment from us, the consumers, to support these innovations, as well as state’s lifting regulations to foster innovation. By allowing these businesses to adapt, they can move into new demand gaps allowing these home-grown businesses to survive.

If you haven’t caught on to the message I am trying to get across, it’s simply that local agricultural systems are not only vital to our economy but to the health of our citizens and the state’s ability to navigate a pandemic. How we support those farmers is by reducing regulations, opening new market opportunities, helping them embrace innovation and, most importantly, supporting them with consumer demand. Therefore, this summer I am calling on all West Virginians to show gratitude to those who kept us fed when national food systems crumbled last year. During Dairy Month, get to know your local dairy farmer and visit your communities’ farmers’ market. Understand why these hard-working folks chose this career path, how they make their product and why it matters to our communities. Get out and support a local producer because home-grown agriculture is vital to West Virginia’s future.

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.