State Ag head talks farming, hemp & school food with county

by Kate Shunney

West Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt spoke to the Morgan County Commission during their September 2 regular meeting, touching on the agenda item of Industrial Hemp but focusing more on the value and possibilities he sees in the state’s farms and agribusiness ventures.

Leonhardt said a move by the state to push opportunities for growers to cultivate industrial hemp took a sideline as COVID emerged last spring.

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt talks to the Morgan County Commission on September 2.

“Once the pandemic hit, we had to shift gears to feeding people,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture is a key link to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school and community feeding program.

The state has also put significant effort into distributing food purchased from farmers and food companies – products that Leonhardt calls “trade mitigation foods” — as part of federal efforts to offset trade retaliation from other countries.

That food has been stocking the Mountaineer FoodBank and made available for nutrition assistance programs around West Virginia, including to three food pantries in Morgan County.

Leonhardt said in 2020 so far, 13 million pounds of trade mitigation foods have been secured. That includes canned vegetables and fruit, meats, juices, shelf-stable milk, fish, nuts and fresh potatoes. The West Virginia Legislature okayed funds for delivery of these items so they wouldn’t just sit in warehouses.

Morgan County is a good partner with the National School Lunch program, Leonhardt said. On August 17, 41 cases of food were delivered to the school system and the school system has already placed orders for $13,500 worth of food for students this school year, he said.

The state’s programs to encourage the cultivation of industrial hemp have grown from 24 growers in 2017 to 300 applicants last year.

The state has just opened its 60-day application period for the 2020-2021 growing season, said Leonhardt. Agriculture officials have opened up a year-round application for processors – those who want to take the industrial hemp crop and turn it into fiber, grain or oil items.

Hemp is not marijuana and not related to the state’s move to allow medical marijuana growing and processing, Leonhardt said. In order to qualify as hemp, the plant can contain no greater than .3% THC concentration, state law says.

“You can grow marijuana in the same field but it can ruin the hemp and the marijuana because they cross-pollinate,” Leonardt said. West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture is not involved in regulation of any medical marijuana activities, he said.

Fields of industrial hemp are closely regulated, reported to law enforcement and inspected. Leonhardt said he sees West Virginia as being “poised” agriculturally to supply a “cornucopia of specialty crops” to the entire Eastern seaboard. Those crops include hemp, lavender being grown on abandoned mine land, tender herbs and fruits along with traditional crops.

The state needs to push for better broadband internet, brand its local food providers and turn state crops into value-added items that make West Virginia stand out, said Leonhardt.

“I consider West Virginia agriculture to be good health for West Virginia,” he said.

Locally grown food is healthy for citizens, agriculture is good for the economy and for the environment, he said.

Commissioner Sean Forney asked if Leonhardt’s office could assist local county growers like Mock’s Greenhouses or Glascock’s Produce to get their food into local grocery stores. Forney said there seem to be barriers to having local food in those chain stores.

Leonhardt said his office is working with Kroger, which has a large presence in the state, to get West Virginia crops into stores.