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Agriculture candidate wants to expand farming

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kent Leonhardt, the Republican candidate for West Virginia commissioner of agriculture, believes West Virginia should work to expand farming within its borders.

"This is a very important race," Leonhardt said during a telephone conference Wednesday morning. "The commissioner of agriculture is responsible for the health of the citizens and of the plants and animals of West Virginia."

Longtime Commissioner Gus R. Douglass, now 85, announced in May 2011 that he would not run for re-election. When he retires in January, Douglass will have served as commissioner for 44 years.

Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, is running against Leonhardt. Helmick did not accept Leonhardt's invitation to participate in Wednesday's teleconference.

After Leonhardt's teleconference, Helmick's campaign said, "This is nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to generate free media. The GOP will not set the senator's schedule nor will he participate in a GOP publicity stunt."

Leonhardt spoke about his background during the teleconference.

"During college, I studied wildlife management and took a lot of agriculture courses," Leonhardt said. "Then I spent 21 years in the Marine Corps. I was an intelligence officer in the first Gulf War. I retired as lieutenant colonel in 1996."

Leonhardt said he bought a 205-acre farm with his wife back in 1982. The farm has grown to 380 acres today.

"I am a practical farmer. I started my farm from scratch. Food safety touches every West Virginian every day. The recent power outages showed how vulnerable food is.

"The food supply became very short in some areas of the state. What would happen if a disaster becomes larger?"

Asked whether it was possible for people to eat meals completely made with locally grown foods, Leonhardt said, "It is possible, but we have to work at it.

"I am encouraged by Gov. Tomblin and his wife for growing locally. And she loves to can."

Today, Leonhardt said, agriculture is "about a $450 million industry in terms of what we produce in West Virginia.

"But food is a $6 billion industry in the state. We want to keep more of that in the state by having local farmers grow fresh food and vegetables right here in West Virginia.

"If we can grow additional produce, we can also start marketing it outside of the state. West Virginia is within 10 hours of driving time of 30 percent of the population of the United States.

"We also need to take a look at overly burdensome regulations," Leonhardt added.

Leonhardt noted that he was unable to persuade Helmick to participate in Wednesday's teleconference.

"Helmick said he would not participate in a GOP publicity stunt," Leonhardt said. "I asked him to get back to me and he never has gotten back to me. This is a legitimate event. We could even have a goat-milking contest."

The statement from Helmick's campaign added that Leonhardt failed "to mention he participated with Sen. Helmick in five forums across the state this spring to discuss the campaign."

"He fails to mention that both candidates will be in front of editorial boards at various newspapers this fall discussing the issues. And he fails to mention that Sen. Helmick is on the road every day working for the people of his senatorial district or campaigning."

Leonhardt said that if he becomes agriculture commissioner, he would also work to resolve differences between the state's Division of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture.

"There are tensions. We can import venison from other states. But our deer farmers here in West Virginia cannot sell their venison in the state, according to DNR regulations.

"Our farmers can sell deer hides and live animals. But they cannot sell deer meat. That is a hurdle we can overcome," Leonhardt said.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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