Guest Column / Local Agriculture Vital to West Virginia’s Economic Future | News, Sports, Jobs

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As the national food system came to a screeching halt at the onset of the pandemic, demand for food increased, providing a unique opportunity for local agriculture. This opportunity was only possible due to the hoarding of supplies, the closure of restaurants and epidemics in large-scale processing resulting in an inability to obtain normal goods from large grocery chains. To find the necessary nutrition, consumers have been forced to turn to local producers or processors to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, our local farmers have taken on this challenge head-on by forging a better relationship with consumers and showing the importance of local agriculture to our well-being. With the pandemic in our rearview mirror, this next growing season will determine whether we’ve learned from the past or whether consumers return to large-scale farming.

There are many signs that local agriculture is thriving in the Highland State. Since the West Virginia Department of Agriculture took over the regulation of Farmers’ Markets, we’ve seen these markets double in number. This was accomplished by reducing onerous regulations to open up new avenues for producers to sell their products. The other half of the equation is that more and more consumers want to know their farmer. These customers appreciate knowing how someone grows or cultivates their product and where exactly it came from. It is this commitment that can truly help our communities experience economic growth, as well as build resilience in the event of future pandemics.

Another indicator of growth is the boom in local meat production. Over the past year, meat processing has increased by 200% and cattle slaughter by 41%. Most processors tell their customers that they are full for next year. This increased demand is a direct result of the shortage of products that we have seen in our grocery chains. For this trend to continue, habits must change, but we also need to increase production by expanding existing facilities or allowing new facilities to penetrate market gaps. What is needed is lifting some federal regulations, as well as local investments. The new Buzz Foods facility, located in Kanawha County, is a perfect example of an opportunity to grow our livestock industry and create better access to local meats. We need to replicate their model across the state.

Sadly, not all agriculture industries have seen a bump during the pandemic, and as June is National Dairy Month, now is a great time to highlight and support West Virginia operations. The lack of increased demand is nothing new for U.S. dairy products, as consumption has leveled off in recent decades. At the same time, technology has enabled the industry to become more efficient, requiring fewer cows to maintain production levels.

The solution is innovation either by creating micro-distilleries or by enhancing drinking milk with products such as cheese. Either avenue takes a commitment from us, the consumers, to supporting these innovations, as well as the lifting of state regulations to foster innovation. By allowing these businesses to adapt, they can adapt to new demand gaps allowing these local businesses to survive.

If you haven’t got the message I’m trying to get across, it’s simply that local farming systems are not only vital to our economy, but also to the health of our citizens and the state’s ability to deal with a pandemic. We support these farmers by reducing regulations, opening up new market opportunities, helping them embrace innovation and, most importantly, supporting them with consumer demand. Therefore, this summer, I call on all West Virginia to show their gratitude to those who fed us when national food systems collapsed last year. During Dairy Month, get to know your local dairy farmer and visit your community’s farmer’s market. Understand why these hard-working people chose this career path, how they make their product, and why it is important to our communities. Go out and support a local producer, because local farming is vital to West Virginia’s future.

(The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects the health of plants, animals and humans through various science, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Agriculture Commissioner is one of six elected of the State who sit on the Public Works Council.)

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