defined as “the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more
advanced state.” As time barrels forward, each institution, industrial
sector or culture must adapt to societal needs. Agriculture is no
different. The “traditional farmer” of our grandparents’ era gave way to
“big agriculture” as we know it today. Smaller farmers were pushed out in
favor of mass land cultivation to feed the world cheaply. Now,
technological advances are once again shifting agriculture into the modern
age. Big is becoming small as efficiencies and conservation move to the
What has brought
on these changes is simply a shift in the market. As food prices over the
last decade have been mostly stagnant, profit margins have continued to
shrink for the average farmer. This is true despite the average American
spending roughly 13 percent of their annual income on food each year.
Shrinking profits make entering the agricultural workforce less attractive
and therefore, harder to recruit new generations of farmers.
means agriculture, like any business, is becoming more reliant on
innovation and technology as it adapts to today’s fast paced economy.
Clearly, industry leaders must work smarter not harder on how we grow our
food. Combine this shift with renewed efforts for conservation, efficiency
and maximizing land use, the current climate has become ripe for
innovation. Innovation is an opportunity for West Virginia’s own
agricultural sector to follow suit and tap into emerging market forces.
Where we as a
state can make progress and grow our agriculture sector is by focusing on
the industries where food dollars are concentrated. The majority, and
nearly half of each dollar spent on eating, goes towards retail, trade or
food services. These are the businesses that deliver food to your table and
already exist within all of our communities.
and production is the second largest sector bringing in roughly 39 percent
of the market share. While West Virginia produces around $800 million worth
of agricultural exports each year, we are only tapping into roughly nine
percent of the production portion of the distribution change by solely
growing food. The other 30 percent is in value-added manufacturing after
the food leaves the farm to be processed, packaged, transported and reach a
wholesale market. That means our state is missing out on vital economic
development opportunities by not processing the food we grow within our
is making food production more efficient and less reliant on land usage, is
only one part of the solution for shifting more food production to our
state. We must also use existing infrastructure, redirect economic
development efforts towards agriculture and develop a proper workforce.
infrastructure includes technological development hubs, like the High-Tech
Corridor, and our intuitions of higher learning. Not using these assets
would be a crucial misstep for any industrial sector trying to redevelop
itself. We also must tap into West Virginia’s “built-in advantages” like
the abundant amount of natural energy being produced right under our feet.
If we were to harness these resources, it would be puzzling why any food
production company was not already considering a re-location to West
To fill the jobs
needed by these industries, West Virginia will have to prioritize an
enhanced emphasis on developing STEAM (science, technology, engineering,
agriculture and mathematics) careers. The good news is we already have a
potential pool of candidates because of the great success we have seen
through our amazing FFA and 4-H programs. These are the young people
already stepping to meet the agricultural challenges of tomorrow. We just
need to show them they can pursue careers right here in West Virginia.
As the next
generation of American farmers shape the way we feed the world, West
Virginia must not be a by-stander. We must help answer the questions of the
day, as well as take advantage of the current shifts in the market. We must
identify how technology and innovation can re-invent our agricultural
industries. How we react to this shifting landscape will determine if we
are able to move our state forward. If we do want to meet the progress
necessary for a better state, our leaders must take an all-in approach to
developing our economy through technological advances. Agriculture must and
will be a part of that conversation.
Kent A. Leonhardt
Commissioner of Agriculture