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Candidates Helmick, Leonhardt see ways to expand agriculture

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Both candidates on the November ballot for state agriculture commissioner believe it is important to expand agriculture as a state industry, but propose different ways to do it.

Republican Kent Leonhardt, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and operator of a farm in western Monongalia County, said excessive government regulation -- particularly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- is stifling growth of agribusiness in West Virginia.

Democrat Walt Helmick, a longtime state senator who operates a spring-water bottling plant in Pocahontas County, said the state needs to continue to invest in agriculture. He cited a recent $126 million appropriation of state lottery funds to upgrade wastewater treatment plants in the Eastern Panhandle, including a $43 million treatment plant in Moorefield that ultimately will protect 3,000 poultry jobs in Hardy County.

Meeting with Gazette editors Tuesday, Leonhardt said West Virginia agriculture is being stifled by excessive government regulations, including EPA limits on nutrient levels in watersheds, which he said should have voluntary compliance.

Helmick said that simply wouldn't work. "If it were totally voluntary, there would be a handful of people who wouldn't go along," he said. "A handful would cause problems for everyone."

Even though agriculture makes up only a small percentage of the state's economy, both candidates said it is important to have an independently elected agriculture commissioner, saying the office plays a vital role in assuring a safe and secure food chain.

Leonhardt said he would promote food safety by expanding locally raised foods.

"If we can keep that local, we can increase the safety of the food," he said.

Helmick said his years as Senate Finance Committee chairman will give him an advantage in maximizing the department's $65 million budget -- including finding the $8 million of funding needed to move the agency's laboratories from antiquated facilities in Guthrie to the state's high-technology park in South Charleston.

Leonhardt stressed that in the Marine Corps, he oversaw staffs that supervised units themselves larger than the Department of Agriculture.

The winner of the Nov. 6 election will succeed the longest-serving agriculture commissioner in state history, Gus Douglass, who is retiring in January after serving 12 terms as commissioner, winning his first election in 1964.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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