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Shift towards more local food sources a benefit to state

By Commissioner Kent Leonhardt

As a West Virginia farmer and the current Commissioner of Agriculture, a lot of my time is spent thinking about our food system. Add in my military background, which has granted me experience with emergency response and logistical infrastructure, and I understand how fragile our supply chain currently stands.

We knew these problems existed, but they have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen bottlenecks in the system, as well as increased demand from consumers. As we have faced these issues, our agricultural communities have adapted in order to continue feeding the world while focusing on innovations. Any good field commander knows that success comes from turning setbacks into assets.

When the pandemic first hit our state, we quickly provided guidelines to our agriculture businesses and markets. Shortages were identified and we worked with our partners towards improving distribution. Consumers turned to local sources of food as processing affected imported commodities. Overall, we learned how important food security and control over our own agricultural sectors is to our country. Every single experience has allowed us to work towards a better West Virginia.

A lot of these changes have been led by Mountaineers across our state, many of whom are stepping up to help their friends, families and neighbors. Those that are able are growing larger gardens while many are trying their hand at a green thumb for the first time. Smaller farms, which make up most of West Virginia, are expanding to meet the increased demand for locally grown foods. Most importantly, citizens are volunteering or donating to our food banks and pantries to ensure West Virginia children and the most vulnerable are fed. As many of our citizens spend more time thinking about the food they consume, the COVID-19 pandemic could bring major adjustments to the system as we know it.

A shift towards more local sources of food will be a benefit to our state. Fresh foods grown within our borders and prepared by our own citizens are typically healthier. The fewer times food changes hands, the safer it is with less risk of contamination. Those dollars we spend locally stay in our economy and are not exported to other states or countries, creating jobs for West Virginians. More local consumption means we will save on transportation costs, reducing our use of fossil fuels. Combine this with new technologies which are working towards reducing soil erosion and runoff into water ways, and we end up with a healthy environment. No other industry in West Virginia can claim all three aspects of good health: personal, economical and environmental.

Regardless of how we come out of this pandemic, we should all thank the farmers who have stepped up to meet increased demands. We should say thanks to our gardeners, new and old, who have expanded their love for the hobby. To those who continue to experiment and expand their abilities, as well as share their bounty with others, continue the good work. To my fellow West Virginians, thank you for supporting local agriculture and helping us triumph during these times. What you learn from this experience will be valuable to a better agricultural system for tomorrow.

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