Editor's note: As part of our continuing look at candidates running for statewide office, The Intelligencer sat down with Republican Agriculture Commission candidate Kent Leonhardt to discuss his campaign.
- What is the role of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the commissioner of agriculture?
Leonhardt: The mission of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and commissioner is very extensive. The department and commissioner are responsible for protecting our plant, animal and human health populations. These tasks are accomplished through inspection and regulation of seed, livestock, food processing facilities, by partnering with other state entities and our federal government to manage the spread of invasive species.
Kent Leonhardt, Republican candidate for West Virginia agriculture commissioner, poses with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who made a bid for the presidency in the primary election.
In addition the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and Commissioner are responsible for strategic planning and emergency response for agriculture and other civil emergencies. Remember the derecho storm from this past June? The West Virginia Department of Agriculture assisted in the distribution of "Ready to Eat Meals" for those without food. The department assisted farmers with the coordination of power and water for livestock. Our poultry and dairy industries must have power to keep the ventilation, milking and refrigeration systems running.
The department promotes food safety and protects consumers through educational and regulatory programs. These tasks are accomplished through outreach programs where staff demonstrates safe food handling and preparation. The commissioner and West Virginia Department of Agriculture are responsible for the promotion of our states agribusiness. It is vital that we have a vibrant agriculture community in West Virginia. Having safe and local foods to feed our fellow West Virginia's is a task not to be taken lightly.
When a disaster strikes we need a commissioner of agriculture who has been battle tested - one who has actually drawn battle plans and implemented them. We need a commissioner who has advised our countries leaders of the threats to our food system and has the strength to fight back the obstacles that lie in our path.
- Why should the average West Virginian care about the position of the commissioner of agriculture?
Leonhardt: For all of the reasons discussed above ... and more. It is jobs, food safety, food security and healthy diets. It is clean water, healthy forests, public safety. The commissioner protects our rural lifestyle and heritage. It is the second most influential position in state government - that is why it is critical that the voters understand the differences in experience, qualifications and education between my opponent and myself.
- As commissioner what changes do you plan to implement?
Leonhardt: Building on the successes of outgoing Commissioner Gus Douglass, one important goal will be to shorten the distance food travels from producer to consumer. Ultimately, I believe this will create a safer, more secure food supply, while increasing agriculture production within our state, growing our agribusiness economy and improved health for all.
Building on an emphasis on local foods, the 2012 Farm Bill, when passed by Congress, will contain first time farmer assistance for veterans. These veterans can return home to an agribusiness that can supply more fresh food in our fledgling farm to school programs and senior nutrition program. Expanded local farmers markets and copying the Huntington Kitchen model of getting more local, fresh foods to neighborhoods without a major grocery store within walking distance to their homes.
The list is endless and with rising fuel prices we have a great opportunity to increase farm incomes and lower consumer costs.
- Can you provide an example of a regulation that you believe is burdensome on the West Virginia farmer? Does the regulation have any value to the consumer?
Leonhardt: One example is the 1,000 chicken farm slaughter limit. There is a growing demand for pasture-raised poultry but a local farm cannot make a living on the 1,000 chicken limit. For the consumer, surrounding states are successfully maintaining food safety with a higher limit than we have in West Virginia. This regulation needs to be reviewed and adjusted upward to meet both farmer and consumer demands without sacrificing the quality or safety of our food product.
- Tell us about your executive leadership experience?
Leonhardt: I served for nearly 21 years in the United States Marine Corps, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel and special intelligence officer. I have led or been the deputy of various units ranging from 68 to 450 men and women with the responsibility of training these men and women for war and leading them in a combat zone. ...
As a small businessman; I have 18 years experience running my own stores or manufacturing representation businesses. And I have over 15 years developing, expanding, and running my own agribusiness, Misty Meadows Farm. I am formally educated in agriculture, business, and intelligence/terrorism.
- Can you name a regulation you have worked through as part of your agricultural experience?
Leonhardt: Taxes and fees! West Virginia and their federal counterparts tax just about everything. Registering with the state of West Virginia is not a one-stop process for agriculture. It requires one stop at the state Tax Department and another stop at the Secretary of State's office. If we are going to be open for business then let's make it simple for all business to get started leading to more jobs and a more vibrant West Virginia economy.
- What role does the commissioner have in flood control for the protection of West Virginia families?
Leonhardt: The commissioner of agriculture is the head of the steering committee of the West Virginia Conservation Agency. This agency provides funding and direction to the local conservation districts and their respective supervisors. The commissioner forms partnerships with state and federal agencies to inspect, design, build, maintain and restore watershed dams that protect communities in various flood zones throughout the state.
- What needs to be done to guarantee local foods throughout the calendar year? How do we provide local foods outside the growing season?
Leonhardt: We have a tremendous resource in West Virginia with natural gas, if we combine with high tunnels (inexpensive greenhouse) we can lengthen our growing season to produce more of our summer fruits and vegetables into our colder months of the year. A unique opportunity exists that would allow our farmers to enhance their farming income and provide locally grown foods to our fellow West Virginians. I believe the more locally grown food we have available to the consumer the healthier our diets will be, thus leading to healthier lives.
- Should we be concerned about threats to our food security?
Leonhardt: Absolutely. The more times food changes hands from producer to consumer, the greater the risk of a pathogen contaminating the food. The longer it takes to reach consumption the greater the threat of criminal or terrorist interception and contamination of our food supply. As a military intelligence officer; I analyzed many such potential terrorist incidents. I wrote terrorist assessments for national and military leaders to include food security issues. I am familiar with our vulnerabilities and our capabilities. Food security will continue to be important as we develop our homeland security plans and strategies.
- You talk a lot about food safety and local foods. What is your position on the labeling of food products containing GMO?
Leonhardt: Unfortunately, I believe it is late in the game to be able to be concerned with GMO labeling. The vast majority of our processed grocery chain sold food contains some amount of GMO product. Approximately 88 percent of our domestic corn is genetically modified and much of it is processed into corn syrup for sweeteners. If West Virginia requires GMO labeling our grocery shelves would quickly become bare. Our population is not significant enough to force a large food corporation to change its labeling just for our state.
The GMO issue, however, is a great opportunity for West Virginia farmers. Our locally grown food producers can capitalize on the demands of the local consumer to provide them with a product that the consumer has confidence in its origins and quality. The American Farmer is one of the most trusted group of individuals in our society. We need to encourage the consumer to continue to have faith in what the West Virginia farmer is producing for our families.
- Tell us about your average day during this campaign?
Leonhardt: As farmers, my wife Shirley and I naturally start our day well before sunrise. Before daylight I immediately address issues on the farm, and the answer emails and complete campaign paperwork. At dawn I go out and check on the livestock, and feed and water the animals as necessary - animal health comes before other farm chores. Shirley and I share these duties based on our schedules. Depending on the season and time available between campaign events I will build fences, cut brush, make hay, repair farm structures, gather firewood, market livestock. When these chores are under control I generally turn my attention towards our off farm small business. This may include phone calls to our representatives, sales visits, personnel management, tax reports and other administrative responsibilities. From there, it is off to meet the voters of our great state - asking for their support in each corner of West Virginia. It is an honor to meet so many of my fellow West Virginians and ask them for their vote.