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Kent Leonhardt: Technology can aid locally grown foods

Oct. 17, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.

The greater Huntington area, like many of West Virginia's bigger cities and towns, shares a border with more populous states. I firmly believe West Virginia farmers can greatly increase the amount of locally grown foods not only to more West Virginia stores and restaurants but to those in our neighboring states.

One technology that can make this possible is called the high tunnel, a greenhouse that can be easily built on any farm, allowing plants grown inside it a more moderated climate. Because the greenhouse keeps cooler temperatures at bay in the spring and fall, plants have a more southerly climate that extends the growing season significantly.

Imagine what these greenhouses can mean to a farmer who is accustomed to selling all of his or her produce in early to mid autumn. Another month or more of freshly grown, local foods will be a pleasant surprise to customers at grocery stores and restaurant patrons. The novelty of having this kind of produce in supply heading into winter will help to create a ready market for our farmers' products.

That's where the Agriculture Commissioner's office can come in. I would immediately organize my marketing team to collect success stories of farmers using these greenhouses for two reasons: to encourage other farmers to consider them and, to help with any grant opportunities with the federal USDA, which has indicated interest in seeing more greenhouses like these used.

Working in conjunction with our land grant universities in West Virginia and county authorities, we could help make our local farmers even more productive, with locally grown foods of many varieties supplying the needs of West Virginia and our neighboring states.

West Virginia is within a 10-hour drive of 30 percent of the U.S. population. Our local farmers can both sell their safe, nutritious produce locally and also take advantage of this close proximity to other states.

Our 10-hour proximity means we can export fresh fruits and vegetables after we've met the needs in West Virginia. If we create a market, our farmers will grow it, I'm confident of that. As we identify the needs of our markets, both inside the state's border and beyond, we can help farmers who are willing to take a risk.

Financially advantageous markets await those who are willing to raise specialty crops for restaurants in Huntington, Cincinnati and Lexington. On my own farm in Monongalia County, we've been able to find ethnic food markets for our goats. Food-oriented cable channels are developing a market for new and exciting opportunities for West Virginia farmers.

I want to be the commissioner of agriculture who can help our farmers find and create these markets, bringing our farms to greater productivity and prominence. We can do it -- together.

Kent Leonhardt, a Fairview resident, is Republican candidate for West Virginia commissioner of agriculture.

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