CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Agriculture Commissioner definitely has a set of proprieties lined out for his agency and he made those clear Monday. Ahead of Wednesday’s start of the legislative session, Kent Leonhardt was clear on MetroNews Talkline the state needs a modernized testing facility.
“Despite our labs being in a 1950’s building that is falling apart and we’re out of room,” he explained. “But despite all of the setbacks we are considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture one of the top ten laboratories, private and government, in the country.”
The designation earns West Virginia a number of requests by the USDA for various testing and research above and beyond their day to day activities. Leonhardt lamented many times they’ll have to move those tests to other states because of outdated equipment.
The labs test for a variety of food safety markers. They perform various farm service work through testing cattle feed or soil samples. He added there is consumer protection work as they test various products to insure the contents are as advertised. He noted a recent case in which a bird seed maker was forced to pull products from the shelves of West Virginia stores when their feed was found by the lab to be largely made of wood chips.
“We do all those kinds of things under consumer protection, we do food safety and we test pesticide over sprays,” he explained. “We are really touching every West Virginian’s life every single day and it’s unfortunate that most West Virginians don’t even know we’re doing it.”
Leonhardt wants lawmakers to authorize the creation of a capital improvement fund within the Department of Agriculture to amass money for modernization of the lab facilities as the demand for lab work promises to increase into the future.
“I want some flexibility so if I have excess money in my budget, I can put it into that capital improvement fund,” Leonhardt explained. “My sole motive for the fund is so to not have to go to the legislature down the road to ask for new money for the Department of Agriculture to build a new lab.”
Another of Leonhardt’s desires is a leftover from the 2017 session. He still believes it wise to move the West Virginia Division of Forestry from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Agriculture. He reasoned while it’s been hard to get the bill through the legislature selling it hasn’t been a problem. He pointed out nobody has disagreed with him on the idea.
“This is all about good government,” he said. “They just opened up that new office in Buckhannon and nobody talked to the Department of Agriculture. I’ve got empty office space 45 minutes away.”
Leonhardt also plans to seek funding from lawmakers for the Warriors to Farmers program. Leonhardt, himself a Marine Corps veteran, believes it is a worthwhile program.
“One farmer went on the record and said, ‘I no longer want to commit suicide because of the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture,'” Leonhardt explained. “You can’t put a price on that and I’ve got eight such testimonies of people who have come forward and were willing to put that on the record.”
Up until now, the Department of Agriculture had been authorized to run the program, but was provided with no funding. The program has largely been fueled until now by donations. Leonhardt hopes lawmakers will be supportive and put some state money into the effort.
Finally, the Commissioner indicated the four cattle purchased by the department under the direction of his predecessor Walt Helmick to bolster the genetics of the state’s herd will remain part of the herd for the time being. As MetroNews previously reported two of the high dollar cattle failed to breed last year. Although some suggested selling the stock at a loss, Leonhardt said he and his farm managers agreed at this point the better move was to simply fold them into the herd since they were quality stock.