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Agriculture commissioner candidate says farming, military experiences important

Aug. 09, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Kent Leonhardt, the Republican candidate for West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner in the November general election, said he is a farmer who can combine his leadership experience from his 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps to lead the department in a new direction.

"We're within 10 hours of 30 percent of the (U.S.) population, but we lag behind productivity in nearly every category," Leonhardt told members of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board on Wednesday. "We're the third most forested state, yet forestry is down."

That was just one example Leonhardt gave for the needed changes when the new commissioner takes office in January. He is facing Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, who defeated four others in the May primary. Leonhardt was unopposed. They are competing to replace longtime commissioner Gus R. Douglass, who is not seeking re-election.

Leonhardt bought his farm in Monongalia County in 1982 while he was still in the Marines. Until his retirement in 1996, he and his wife, Shirley, worked to upgrade the property, which had been an abandoned farm for some 40 years.

"There were more animals living in the house than people did," he said.

Their farm is now 380 contiguous acres and has two farm leases for hay production and additional grazing. They raise sheep, cattle and goats and sell hay when there is a surplus available. In addition, the Leonhardts have had a backyard flock of chickens and have also participated in the Morgantown farmer's market with their son, selling flowers, lettuce greens and tomatoes.

Leonhardt said he became interested in the department when he was getting his farm going. He complimented the department for supporting 4-H and Future Farmers of America but said he felt support wanes as those children move onto higher education and then try to become farmers.

"I'm not criticizing Commissioner Douglass," he said. "There's a need of a person who is a farmer and has managerial experience."

Leonhardt has been involved in the West Virginia Farm Bureau since the last 1990s and has received the organization's endorsement.

Among the areas of improvement for the department is providing incentives for veterans who come back from active duty to farm, calling it a therapy for those dealing with emotional issues following combat. He also said his military experience can help the state plan for food and water crises that could occur in a natural disaster, pointing to the June 29 storm that knocked out power to 75 percent of the state.

Leonhardt also wants to see incentives for farmers who use new innovations, such as high tunnels, which are unheated greenhouses that can help farmers extend their growing season.

Another priority is working with state lawmakers to assess what changes need to be made in business and agriculture policy to help spur more growth in farming.

"A farmer will grow when he knows there is a market," he said.

When asked about his opponent, who has been a member of the House or Senate for the past 23 years, Leonhardt said he has closed the gap this summer.

"I'm more qualified than my opponent, in starting my farm from scratch and my managerial experience," he said "I led a department the size of the Agricultural Department when I was in the military."

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