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Commissioner Leonhardt: Goals and promises for 2021

The last year has been one of the roughest in recent memory. Mainly due to the pandemic, we as Americans have experienced loss, hardship and new challenges that haven’t been seen in several decades. As many of us try to leave 2020 behind, we can look towards the hope the new year will bring. As your Commissioner of Agriculture, 2021 also means the beginning of my second term which requires a revisiting of our goals and priorities for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. There are many things we want to accomplish in the coming four years, but in the meantime, we must modernize our Guthrie laboratories, expand the production of local food and continue to foster a government that is focused on helping the people it serves.

Food safety, emergency response and environmental testing, as well as several other vital tasks, are left to the duty of the laboratories at Guthrie. It is no exaggeration to say this facility and the staff within it are essential to the well-being of every West Virginian. The problem is that the building, a former 1950s military gymnasium, no longer fits the needs of a modern lab. The tremendous talent we have in staff is being limited by the facilities they work in hindering our ability to bring in additional resources, as well as research and development dollars, to the Mountain State. The Department’s laboratories are simply unable to expand services because our facilities are just not up to par.

During the pandemic, hoarding, logistical inefficiencies and outbreaks in manufacturing facilities made food scarcity commonplace for every American, not just the most vulnerable. A centralized food system led many of our citizens to turn to local producers to fill nutritional gaps. To avoid shortages in the future, we must further develop local food infrastructure by educating the public and expanding market opportunities for West Virginia producers. Our West Virginia Grown program accomplishes both goals but is lacking crucial support from state leaders. If we truly want to grow our local economy, keep food dollars in our communities and develop a resiliency within our food systems, we need to invest in local agriculture. It starts with having a well-funded food and agricultural products branding program.

In 2021, we must continue to work on building relationships across the state as we implement the West Virginia Strategic Plan for Agriculture. The plan is to right-size government, while reducing redundancy and waste, to improve the health of West Virginia literally and figuratively. It’s part of our goal to ensure a safe, abundant and affordable food supply with clear and concise rules and regulations. This boils down to an “educate before regulate” mentality and working with, not against, our agribusinesses. WVDA staff has worked tirelessly along these lines by championing several pieces of legislation over the last four years, but there are still many laws that prevent our agribusinesses from growing. We must continue to get rid of government bureaucracy that prevents our farmers from doing what they do best: feeding our citizens.

With COVID-19 vaccines on their way, we enter the new year with a lot of hope. Hope that we can save American lives, as well as businesses from the full effects of this terrible pandemic. That same hope can be used to revitalize our state by bringing innovation to government. It begins with state leaders doing everything in their power to stop the downward population trend West Virginia has experienced over the last seventy years. It will take convincing younger generations the Mountain State is the right place to work, live and raise a family. We can only do this by expanding local services, encouraging growth of local industrial sectors and using taxpayer dollars effectively. My continued promise for 2021, the same as it has been the last four years, is to continue to work on behalf of the people who wish to see a better West Virginia. We have a lot of work to do, but I have great faith that we can make the Mountain State a better place.

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