As the pandemic sweeps the nation, West Virginia’s State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt says the state is in a tough spot, but farmers are pushing through and will prevail. Leonhardt has worked hard to keep livestock markets, meat processing plants, food and dairy inspections trucking along at pre-pandemic rates. In April, he asked Governor Jim Justice to keep the state’s 88 farmers’ markets open with certain restrictions. “The markets have had to limit the number of people that go in the barns. They are practicing social distancing, but our markets are still in operation and we are keeping the ag industry in West Virginia moving,” Leonhardt told West Virginia MetroNews ‘Talkline’ back in April. “I am very proud of my staff. They have been tremendous through all this. They have had to adjust and change.”
Though West Virginia is ranked 42-out-of-50 when it comes to agricultural production in the United States, the state produces a great deal of its own food and timber needs. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, West Virginia leads the nation in both small and family-owned farms, with 20,600 of their farms classified as small (selling less than $250,000 in agricultural products) and 93 percent family-owned. The Mountain State, with its country roads twisting around mountains, differs significantly from agricultural giants like Iowa, that enjoy the benefit of expansive midwestern plains. Still, West Virginians manage to grow a wide variety of crops, many of them organic. Unlike other states, West Virginia’s small farms account for nearly 29 percent of total farm sales, in contrast to the US average of 11.1 percent. Nearly half of West Virginia’s agricultural products sales were from farms selling less than $1,000,000, compared to the U.S. average of 33.6 percent. Altogether, 21,489 farms in West Virginia bring in $806 million annually, representing roughly 9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
Withstate fairs and festivals having been canceled or postponed, livestock raised by 4H students is being sold at teleauctions. Food banks have become busy hubs working to supply a growing demand and while Leondhart confirms they have enough food to feed those in need, he says: “If I can encourage folks out there to get to your local pantry, food pantry and volunteer. They need our help. That’s the biggest issue. With the increased demand, they need more help getting the food out there to the people.”