West Virginia Agribusinesses Weathering Pandemic
CHARLESTON — While nearly all businesses in West Virginia have struggled over the last 18 months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the state, West Virginia’s farmers and food producers were able to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Kent Leonhardt, the state’s agriculture commissioner, knows how to do that. As a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, the phrase “improvise, adapt, and overcome” is literally drilled into leathernecks from their time at boot camp until their honorable discharge.
This summer, the state Department of Agriculture is celebrating West Virginia’s farmers and food producers. Last week was National Farmers’ Market Week.
There are 155 farmers markets across the state, a 50% increase since the department took over regulation of the markets.
The department has a searchable database of farmers markets for people to find the closest to them. The farmers market search can be found at agriculture.wv.gov. Leonhardt said farmers markets provide an important service not just for farmers, but also the customers and help build relationships.
“It’s all under the Department of Agriculture, and that’s made things a lot easier for the farmers markets and, subsequently, for the farmers who want to bring a product to those markets,” Leonhardt said. “The farmers market is a way for that farmer to actually access the public and the public come to them, just like going to a grocery store.
“The farmers markets are being run by the farms themselves, not like a grocery store,” Leonhardt continued. “When you come to the farmers market, you get to know your farmer and know your food. I think that’s extremely important. Whether they’re using pesticides if that’s a concern to you, what type of agricultural practices they’re using, and you can ask them flat out: Did you grow this or did you import it? That’s important to many, many people.”
Leonhardt said the pandemic disrupted the supply chains and how people shop for food. At the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns during the spring of 2020, grocery stores were raided by hoarders. Farmers and food producers used farmers markets and even sold food directly off the farms to provide a source of food for people in a socially distanced way.
“West Virginia did really well,” Leonhardt said. “We had some shortages, but we didn’t have near what the other states did. I’m very proud of agriculture and how our farmers stepped up. Right now, our farmers are selling a lot of product right off the farm. Our farmers market numbers were growing because of deregulation.”
Another way Leonhardt and the state’s farmers are celebrating is with the restart of the State Fair of West Virginia. The State Fair was canceled last year along with all fairs and festivals due to the increase of COVID-19 numbers at the beginning of last summer.
The 96th annual State Fair returns to Fairlea in Greenbrier County on Aug. 12-21. The fair has an estimated economic effect of $13.8 million for the state and helps promote the state’s farmers, FFA students, and agri-businesses.
With most of the fair’s rides, attractions, and exhibits being either outside or within open barns, masks are not being required though Department of Agriculture staff will be wearing masks while indoors.
“Most of the activities are outside, so you can still get the full flavor and feel like you’re going to be safe because you’re going to be outside at the fair,” Leonhardt said. “This is just as important as like a farmer’s market, where there’s a gathering of people in the agricultural industry and people can bring their families and have fun.
“Not only that, but they can also educate their children on where your food really comes from,” Leonhardt continued. “All too often, people don’t really understand that food doesn’t come from a grocery store. It comes from the hard work of a farmer, and then it comes from a distribution system. Then it comes from another processing system. There’s a lot of things that they can learn about agriculture. Farming is a business.”
The State Fair, farmers markets, and the food products produced and found on grocery shelves and freezers across the nation help with tourism in the state as well. Farms, farmers markets, and even state parks are hosting farm-to-table dinners events more frequently, with people driving from other states for the experience.
“We got the Farmers Market Association and state parks and the Department of Ag together. And we used our planning coordinators in the field to help bring those farmers’ produce and products to the state parks so that they could then put these on. They’re making money every time they do one of these dinners. The state parks are making money and we know the state parks need some additional funding. So that’s an initiative that the Department of Agriculture started, and we want to continue that.”
Leonhardt wants the public to be aware of the successes of West Virginia’s farmers, food producers, and agri-business entrepreneurs. Learning from the lessons of the pandemic, Leonhardt said all West Virginians should celebrate the successes of agriculture.
“It is a celebration,” Leonhardt said. “Again, agribusiness and agriculture kept on going. We all have to eat 365 days a year, but it is a return to the celebrating of the harvest, which is what fall is very often about. And many of these gatherings happen in the fall. So, we should celebrate and be thankful for the harvest and thankful for the bounty that we’re, we’ve been blessed with.”