CHARLESTON, -- By many national measures, West Virginia barely registers as an agriculture state.
But the four men running for state commissioner of agriculture say the admittedly low-profile statewide office plays a crucial role. From there, however, their opinions diverge.
Incumbent Gus Douglass, who's wrapping up his 10th four-year term as commissioner, says the Department of Agriculture is on the right track and needs his 40 years of experience to modernize key laboratories and build more markets for farmers to sell directly to the public.
Democrat Wayne Casto, who is challenging Douglass in the Democratic primary, and Republicans Lawrence Beckerle and Michael Teets say much about the agency needs changing, starting with the infusion of new blood at the top.
Douglass claims credit for creating the agency's meat inspection, food safety and animal health programs. And more recently, he's pushed technology and security measures such as a mobile lab able to identify dangerous viruses in hours rather than weeks.
"The department this day is high tech," Douglass said. "We depend to a large extent upon the analytical capabilities that I have developed here."
Douglass notes that he's been in agriculture for almost all of his 81 years, including stints as state Future Farmers of America president and national FFA president. He was elected agriculture commissioner six times from 1964 through 1984 and four more terms since 1992. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1988.
"Experience does count," he said, especially when quick action is needed for such problems as a rabies outbreak. "I know where to go and who to marshal. I don't know how a new person could react."
His opponents aren't as enamored of Douglass' experience.
Teets says a new commissioner could respond better than Douglass, whom he criticized for ordering last month's destruction of more than 80 head of cattle exposed to rabies in Hampshire County.
"That really wasn't handled very well," said Teets. The 55-year-old cattle and turkey farmer from Lost River would have quarantined the herd, potentially saving the state thousands of dollars in reimbursement costs.
"I don't think he's done anything bad, but it's just kind of stagnant," Teets said. "We need somebody with a little more energy."
Douglass likes to compare himself with 90-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the nine-term West Virginia Democrat.
"If we stay active, both our minds and our bodies, well, we will live longer," he said. "I was out for four years and if I hadn't gotten back into the scheme of things, why I don't know whether I'd be here today or not."
Casto, a retired 14-year state Department of Agriculture employee, argues Douglass pushed too many employees out of the field and into desk jobs, and has put too much emphasis on food-borne illnesses that usually originate outside the state.
Beckerle, a forester and farmer with lengthy experience reclaiming surface mines, says Douglass, as a cattle farmer, lacks the necessary breadth of experience for the job.
"The commissioner of agriculture needs someone with a broader background in other issues," he said.
Douglass and his challengers want better markets for the state's small farms, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says average 168 acres.
Douglass wants to replicate Charleston's Capital Market, which brings together farmers and urban consumers, in at least four locations throughout the state.
The other candidates want a co-op.
"We need to get better markets," Teets said. "The first thing of it is, we have to have a co-op."
Casto, who grew up on a small dairy, says there is no state program that encourages small farmers. "It's very difficult for any of our growers to stay in business," he said.
The way Casto sees it, the agriculture commissioner should help small operators form cooperatives to market their products and develop better electronic commerce resources for niche products.
"We have a product. We don't have a market," Casto said. "We've got to become diverse. We've got to be able to look at the specialty markets and develop those."
Beckerle, the Republican candidate from Craigsville, produces niche products. He grows shitake mushrooms and raises quail. He's pushing the idea of helping small farmers with tax credits for producing diesel from cooking oil and having the state grow biofuel crops such as perennial sunflowers on reclaimed surface mines.
"There's a lot of things that the Department of Agriculture does. There's a lot of things it could be doing," Beckerle said.
Besides emphasizing biofuels, Beckerle says there should be a greater emphasis on invasive plants such as Japanese stilt grass. He raised that issue during an unsuccessful campaign for Douglass' job four years ago.