When you get to be
my age, smart investments made decades ago start to pay off. Much like our
personal finances, the State must make wise investments to ensure future
generations can avoid tough budgetary decisions. We must avoid is
intertwining the budget with the success of certain industries.
When the coal
industry, the foundation of the State’s budget for decades, was suddenly
subjected to crippling regulations, lawmakers were faced with an impossible
dilemma; dip into the Rainy-Day fund or make tough cuts for a balanced
budget. If previous lawmakers would have made solid investments during the
height of the industry, present day lawmakers would have not been left to
clean up the mess. To guarantee we do not fall into the same predicaments of
recent years, the Governor and Legislature must start working towards a
brighter future through diversification. Agriculture is one those investment
opportunities we shouldn’t pass up.
It is time to invest
in our children’s future by creating policies that reverse the atrocious
health trends prevalent today. We know healthy eating habits are formed at an
early age. We also know our school systems are crucial in the formation of
these habits. Decades ago, cooks and fresh foods were replaced with
heat-and-serve methods that prioritized efficiency and cost over quality and
health. Yes, the switch saved money in the short term, but in the long term
it has contributed to some of the unhealthiest citizens in the United States.
As health care costs continue to consume the bulk of the state budget, we can
now see that these short-term savings have led to unintended consequences.
It may be too late
for those who have made their way through the primary education system, but
we have a chance to positively affect the next crop of students. Let’s focus
on policies that expand healthier, fresher options for our students. Let’s
teach children how to how make better choices. Let’s allow our school
cafeteria cooks to make healthy food from scratch.
Access to food is
not a unique problem to our schools. When you hear about the rising number of
“food deserts” in Appalachia, you might expect our landscape to be barren,
lacking any vegetation. Despite having abundant, fresh water and lush river
valleys, the number of West Virginians that reside in these food deserts
continue to climb each year. As “big box stores” decided it’s not profitable
to stay in our communities, their departure have put a strain on our
citizens’ ability to find fresh, healthy foods. This is devastating to the
quality of living for these folks. However, we can turn this bad situation
into an opportunity.
West Virginia ranks
8th in apple production, 19th in broiler chickens and 39th in cattle. At the same time, West Virginians
consume $7 billion more food than we produce. There is a clear economic opportunity
before us. Sadly, very few of these raw products are processed here in the
Mountain State. Why? The main reason is that we lack processing facilities.
Without infrastructure enhancements, products are being shipped out of state,
leading to potential job loss, not to mention increasing the chance of
We need better
infrastructure beyond roads if we are to scale and expand our industries.
It’s time we start investing in local producers. Let’s find ways to encourage
state institutions to source from West Virginia farmers. We should promote
businesses who show commitment to their fellow Mountaineers. It’s time we do
a better job of connecting producers to the distribution chain. We must
provide more tools to our small businesses and entrepreneurs, while ensuring
regulations are fair and balanced.
Our call to the
Governor and the Legislature is we need to start looking towards the future.
It’s time we start pursing policies that have long-term payoffs. Our economy
must diversify. Why not start with the people who produce our food? West
Virginia leads the nation in small, family-owned farms. We know we have
people who are waiting to grow their businesses, but we must start treating
agriculture like any other industrial sector.
If you believe
agriculture should be part of our effort to diversify our state’s economy,
lend us your voice. Tell your elected officials to join our cause. It’s time
we invest in agriculture.
Kent A. Leonhardt
Commissioner of Agriculture