Saturday, 5 May 2012

WV agriculture commissioner race draws statewide attention

By Whitney Burdette
Unlike in years past, this year's race for commissioner of agriculture has drawn plenty of attention.
As current Commissioner Gus Douglass, who has served more than 40 years at the helm of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, prepares to end his term, five Democrats, one Republican and one unaffiliated candidate are vying for his position. 
But this year's primary isn't without contention. Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, has come under fire because some believe he doesn't qualify to run for the position. State code requires the commissioner of agriculture to be a working farmer. While Helmick claims his water bottling company qualifies him, his opponents seem to disagree.
However, in March, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom ruled Helmick could stay on the ballot after fellow candidate Joe Starcher challenged Helmick's candidacy. 
Starcher is a retired veterinarian and a former Agriculture Department official. His lawsuit cited a state law requiring the commissioner to be a farmer whose chief business has been agriculture for at least 10 years. In his ruling, Bloom concluded that state law can't impose such a limit if it's not also in the constitution.     
In addition to his water bottling company, Helmick owns a 200-acre farm and is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. 
The State Journal reached out to all of the candidates for agriculture commissioner to ask questions about the race, their views on the role of the Department of Agriculture as well as how they would address some key issues facing farmers. Of the seven candidates running, all but Helmick and write-in candidate Carl Andrew Waggoner, of Greenbrier County who is not affiliated with any party, submitted answers for the pre-election comparison. 
Douglass has endorsed Steve Miller, a 30-year veteran of the Department of Agriculture. In a news release endorsing Miller, Douglass pointed out that Miller is indeed a farmer. Miller has a degree in agriculture from West Virginia University and currently works as an assistant commissioner with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. 
Sally Shepherd owns a 180-acre farm in Sissonville and grew up on a 600-acre livestock, poultry and crop farm. Shepherd said she would work to promote energy independence by using renewable crop fuel to power farm machinery.
Bob Tabb is another Department of Agriculture employee. The Democrat is a fourth-generation farmer and served four terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates, where he co-chaired the House Agriculture Committee. Tabb currently works as deputy commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, where he works on budget and legislative issues.
Joe Messineo has experience with both the U.S. and West Virginia Departments of Agriculture. He also spent three years in the U.S. Army as a food safety inspector and was a field supervisor for animal health programs for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture for five years. Messineo operates a farm in Roane County and served nearly 19 years on the Roane County Farm Bureau Board of Directors.
After Republican Mike Teets dropped out of the race earlier this year, the GOP replaced him with Kent Leonhardt. Leonhardt is a retired U.S. Marine and operates a once-abandoned farm with his wife. He serves on the Monongalia County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. 
After dropping out of the race, Teets threw his support behind Helmick.
The five Democrat candidates will face off in the May 8 primary. The Republican race is uncontested, so Leonhardt will face the winner of the primary in the Nov. 6 general election.
Each candidate's response to The State Journal's questionnaire is listed below. Some answers had to be abbreviated for space.

Why is the race is getting so much attention?
Do you think the added focus is good or bad? Why?
What role do you see the Agriculture Commissioner taking for the next term?
What do you think of the requirements to be Agriculture Commissioner? Are they outdated? Explain.
The EPA is attempting to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations and label such operations as point-source pollution. What is your opinion of the EPA’s new rules and how would you address them?
Kent Leonhardt, Republican, Monongalia County
Because the Democrat Party has allowed individuals who are not qualified under state law to run for this office. And individuals who used to work together are running against each other; they possibly did not work well together before.
I think it is good. The Republican Party vetted me carefully to make sure I was qualified to run and do the job. The voters are getting to see who is really qualified to be commissioner of agriculture and who is not.
There needs to be a review and a reorganization of the department so it can react to emerging opportunities and it needs to work more closely with other state and federal agencies. Agriculture in West Virginia is in decline, with the average age of West Virginia farmers being over 60 years old. You can’t ask young farmers to enter the industry unless you have done so yourself. My wife and I started our farm from scratch. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture did very little to help us. Our farm had been abandoned since 1957. We know what it takes to start a farm in West Virginia.
They are absolutely valid. West Virginians need to be confident the Agriculture Commissioner has the experience and knowledge of farming. They need to be able to trust the commissioner because too much depends upon it. Our food supply and food safety is crucial, but often taken for granted. The individuals in this race who are not qualified by law were in a position to change the laws if they needed to be changed before running. They chose not to do so. Only the Legislature can determine if a law is outdated. The Agriculture Department could have recommended new legislation if they believed the laws were outdated.
The EPA has a history of mandating farmers take expensive measures to reduce pollution without the science to back up the need for the mandates. Everyone wants clean air and water. The farmer’s bottom line improves with sound conservation practices, yet the EPA continues to use old data and an unworkable model to dictate requirements on farmers they do not even know can be met. As commissioner, I would work hard to provide sound science to the EPA in support of our farmers. If the farmers are a problem, we will know for sure and help them resolve any issues. Hopefully we can resolve issues with common sense, but if science and reason fail to protect our farming industry, I would provide the sound science and advice to the state’s Attorney General who can bring the legal system to bear on the issues. None of the above is happening today.
Bob Tabb,
Jefferson County
Two reasons: Gus Douglass is retiring as the longest serving commissioner of agriculture in the United States — serving 44 of the last 48 years. Consumers are becoming more interested in where their food comes from and how it is grown.
The added focus is good for agriculture. Voters have an opportunity to learn about the candidates’ experience and background. WVDA impacts producers and consumers on a daily basis. Food safety, animal and plant health, marketing and development of products and farmers markets, nutrient management assistance, water sampling, feed and seed testing, pet food monitoring, and being a “voice for agriculture” are a sample of the duties of WVDA under the direction of the commissioner of agriculture.
Increased production and utilization of “West Virginia Grown” and “Know Your Farmer- Know Your Food” will require the next commissioner to increase communication, education, cooperation and promotion between producers and consumers. Leadership during the transition at WVDA is critical for uninterrupted service. Working with the Legislature, state and federal agencies to continue funding and reasonable regulations of agriculture.
I believe requirements are very important to be Agriculture Commissioner. I believe having experience, knowledge and a financial stake in agriculture is the best way to understand agriculture. I will never apologize for being a farmer.
The EPA is attempting to require a discharge permit for concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFO] based solely on numbers. This is wrong. Permits for discharge should be based on actual discharge, not the potential to discharge. I believe most farmers are practicing environmentalists. My family has been drinking the water (from our farm) for over 140 years. What better reason to be a good steward of our land and water. I will defend agriculture based on sound scientific data. Agriculture has made great strides in conservation practices and implementation of best management practices. We don’t have a choice. Remember: No farm, no food.
Sally Shepherd, Democrat,
Kanawha County
There is increasing attention because there are so many questions and queries swirling about the legality and/or appropriateness of three of the five candidates running for this office. Attention is heightened, I believe, by my having gained such traction as a woman farmer, ... who, being the only “practicable farmer,” is spending the least on her campaign while talking the most about what can actually be done with the tremendous resources of the (department).
I think it is wonderfully opportune for the West Virgina Department of Agriculture that West Virginia voters are reminded that it exists. A $65 million state agency with 350-plus employees has been under the steady hand of Gus Douglass for most of 40-plus years, and the voters are hopefully being awakened to the tremendous importance and potential of this office. I believe the commissioner of agriculture should indeed have a strong agricultural background, which I cannot imagine one managing to have without, in fact, having been a farmer. ... As a farmer, it is of great concern to me, and one of my reasons for running, that the commissioner of agriculture is elected not by farmers, but by a majority vote, the majority of whom do not now understand or appreciate the importance of West Virginia agriculture. As commissioner of agriculture, I would work to change that.
The role will be to not only efficiently manage the existing important functions of the $65 million agency, but also to take the leadership in making the current food crisis of ever-rising food prices/ever-lowering food value a golden West Virginia agriculture opportunity. Collaboration of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture with all other ag and food-related agencies, industry, institutions and organizations to develop a statewide food production, preparation, processing, marketing, and distribution system will get West Virginia farms producing for local consumption and for export, resulting in healthier West Virginia citizens, profitable West Virginia farms and revitalized rural economies.
I believe the commissioner of agriculture should indeed have a strong agricultural background, which I cannot imagine one managing to have without, in fact, having been a farmer. When elected, I believe a strict interpretation of the current law might suggest that the person would not be eligible to run for a second term due to being “principally” engaged in running a $65 million department rather than one’s own farm, though the knowledge and experience gained from 4 years serving as Commissioner would logically be as significant and qualifying as having been managing one’s farm. I believe it should be addressed for clarity.
EPA regulations on concentrated animal feeding operations should be scale appropriate similar to the need for USDA food production involving GAP practices of small West Virginia growers relative to industrial agriculture. Regulations developed for industrial agriculture are not scale appropriate for West Virginia producers who currently are receiving a premium price per pound for their beef because it is raised more naturally with many fewer head per acre than the large industrial feed lots. They not only have less need for antibiotics but also have less animal waste impact on our streams. Much more effective than a point source system of regulation and inspection would be the continued work of the WVDA, WVU and WVSU Extension, and NRCS in current and planned nutrient management programs. The rising costs of chemical fertilizers necessitates that we not allow “nutrients” to become “wastes” and “pollutants.” I have been working with WVSU on developing a mobile aeration compost unit that combines food ‘wastes’ from the cities with animal ‘wastes’ on the farm to produce useful soil amendment.
Joe Messineo, Democrat,
Roane County
I believe that the diversity of the candidates in the race has a lot to do with all the attention.
I think it is bad for the people of West Virginia because this race has turned into a mud-slinging campaign by some of the candidates, and they seem to be getting all the media attention. I would like to get back to the issues of agriculture and how we need to serve the people in the future.
There are many roles he or she needs to play but the one that stands out for me is strong leadership.The next commissioner needs to re-evaluate the needs of the people and address those needs in improving the services that will be provided to the citizens of this great state. That will take a strong leader who understands the agriculture industry.
There is no debate regarding the requirements. How can you administer the Department of Agriculture and understand the needs of the people of this state if you have never been a farmer? It goes back to the leadership issue — a good leader is well versed and able to apply the skills they have learned to run an effective operation.
The EPA is an agency that has the ability to make its own rules. There is the problem and until Congress takes action to limit the ability of this agency to self rule, controversy will always be a part of its decision making. As commissioner, I will work with our congressional delegation and other organizations to get the powers of this agency under control.
Steve Miller, Democrat,
Mineral County
There have been some issues in the press from the beginning I think, or early on, that’s one thing, and the only other contested statewide race as you folks know is the Supreme Court race in the primary anyway. Folks have to get into something, so we’re one of those races that is contested, so I think that’s probably the main reason.
It’s kind of a double-edged sword. The good part is it does draw attention to the race, I think there were a lot of folks out there (who) didn’t realize this was an elected position. It’s gaining awareness and educating the public, which is a great thing. Some of the things have been negative about the race … indirect things have been negative, and that’s the bad part. But I’m glad the race is getting attention because it is making people aware there is a commissioner of agriculture and it is an important position, and it’s about a lot more than cows and corn like hay, and food and water safety.
We’ve got to take the lead on food safety. That touches everybody every day. We have to take the lead in that and make sure we have cutting-edge technology, up-to-date technology in our labs. Our people in the field are aware what’s going on, not just in West Virginia but also in the nation, and that’s extremely important. The commissioner always has to take a role in job creation. (There is )lots of huge potential here not just for farmers but processors who could further process food products that are grown right here in West Virginia. We can develop a lot of different lands, such abandoned coal lands. When the real money comes in, we can help the further processing of those products, whether it be meats, vegetables, things like that, canned products, that sort of thing. There is a huge amount of potential here.
I think very strongly that there should be some sort of requirements. I’m the only candidate with a degree in agriculture from West Virginia University. I sat through those classes ... and I hated them, and I wondered why I was sitting there. Today, I find that I use them every single day. ... That being said, my background is also in the dairy industry. I milked cows for a lot of years. I’ve got the farm background. I still operate my own farm as well. In the U.S., I think there are 36 commissioners of agriculture who are appointed by their governors in each state. I know most of them, and every one of them is a farmer. They can talk the talk, and they can walk the walk. (If) we would up and send a commissioner of agriculture from West Virginia that’s not a farmer that doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know what to say, we would be the laughing stock of the nation. So I think it’s important that we have someone with the right background.
I’ve already worked extensively on EPA regulations. My office has been in Moorefield since I started in 1981. That’s the heart of where EPA has been gouging agriculture. Over those years, agriculture has just been an easy target. We’ve got to maintain our science-based information and keep it up to date so we know what’s out there and we can deal with it, and if there’s not a problem, which is the case in a lot of areas, we have that information to deal with it with the EPA. Somewhere along the line, someone said we should just abolish the EPA. That’s not realistic, and that’s not going to happen. We have to realize the EPA is here to stay and have to realize how to combat their issues as they bring them up.
Walt Helmick, Democrat, Pocahontas County
Did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Carl Andrew Waggoner,
(Write-in Candidate), Greenbrier County
Could not be reached for comment
Could not be reached for comment
Could not be reached for comment
Could not be reached for comment
Could not be reached for comment

Courtesy statejournal

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