West Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt: State Needs More Full-Time Farmers

The decline of coal mining also has led to a decrease in the number of dairy and cattle farmers in West Virginia, according to state Secretary of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt.

Leonhardt visited the Northern Panhandle Tuesday, taking time to tour local farming operations and meet with farmers, extension agents and high school students involved with farming.

The day ended with an informational dinner at the Ohio County Event Center at The Highlands, during which Leonhardt addressed West Virginia growers, producers and associated businesses. The tour and dinner were sponsored by the West Virginia University Extension Service and the Northern Panhandle Conservation District.

“We’re trying to raise awareness about agriculture,” Leonhardt said prior to the dinner. “People today look at West Virginia’s flag, and don’t realize there’s a farmer on it.”

When West Virginia became a state in 1863, as much as 96 percent of the population was involved in farming, he said. Today that number has reversed itself, and just 4 percent of state residents are farmers.

In the past, many of the farmers were “part-time” farmers who maybe had a few head of cattle, but worked full-time in coal mines or steel mills. As those industries declined, those miners with farms left the area — leaving their farmland behind.

Leonhardt said the state should work to encourage children to become full-time farmers with a passion for their vocation. He sees farming as an economic development opportunity for West Virginia.

“We would be providing local food, maybe developing our farms to the point where they could be exporting their product,” he said.