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The case for an Agriculture Business Development Fund

Within the first days of the Biden Administration, Vice President Kamala Harris held a roundtable discussion with West Virginia media outlets on the administration’s plans for rural states. Part of this maneuver was to put pressure on lone West Virginia Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, to support President Biden’s stimulus package. The new administration is also hopeful to make in-roads with a base that has felt ignored as the National Democrat Party has turned its focus away from fossil fuels and the working class. Within this discussion, the Vice President mentioned abandoned mine land as an avenue to create an economic prosperity for the region. Madam Vice President, there is a proven winner for these types of projects, agriculture.

Even though West Virginia has been discussing economic diversification for years, it’s now evident the new administration in Washington, D.C. will not be favorable towards fossil fuels, the economic driver for our state. How we mitigate the effects of an unfriendly federal administration is by removing hinderances to local economic development. Under my administration, your State Department of Agriculture has worked to improve the business climate to grow agriculture and diversify our state’s economy by streamlining rules and regulations, as well as providing more resources to local businesses. We have made strides and learned a great deal, but it’s clear our own resources are limited as the state leaders continue to ignore agriculture-based investments in the Mountain State.

As we try to overcome these challenges, one common theme continues to arise: the need for an agriculture business development fund. Two clear examples of where such a fund could have aided new business development is a Charleston meat and food service business expansion and helping a lavender production and processing operation get started in Southern West Virginia. In both cases, these entrepreneurs had to turn to very competitive Abandoned Mine Land Funding (AML) to close the capital gap facing their initiatives. Without these businessmen willing to take on considerable risk by investing in their home state, these opportunities would have been lost.

A fund dedicated to agriculture business development is not unheard of as other states have done this with great success. Kentucky used tobacco settlement funds to establish their fund which made sense as they used the funds from one fleeting agriculture commodity to help farmers diversify. Tennessee, Virginia and Michigan are other states seeing great returns on investments as they help develop their agriculture industries. They all have focused on attracting high-tech agriculture-based manufacturing that provides new opportunities for local producers. To attract these types of business, we need to invest in our state by casting a wider net with more tools. That includes having funds available for conducting an analysis and economic studies, which are usually covered by existing funds.

While we continue to work with in-state and out-of-state food processing companies to expand their operations or relocate to the Mountain State, we still face a lot of challenges that cannot be overcome with AML funding alone. This makes even starting the conversation or exploring a new agriculture business development a lost cause. We need a fund available to do feasibility studies for prospective agribusinesses, develop utilities and road upgrades on the many sites sitting idle throughout the state, or to develop new business sites. What we cannot do is say we believe and value the work of our farmers without putting agriculture on a level playing field with not just our neighbors but other industrial sectors. We know we cannot rely on the federal government to tell us what is best for West Virginia. It will take state lawmakers, business leaders and producers to turn our state around.

(Leonhardt is the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture. He also owns and operates a farm in Monongalia County, and previously served in the state Senate, representing the 2nd District.)

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