FAIRVIEW, W.Va. - Kent Leonhardt wants you to make him the state's next agriculture commissioner.
He promises he'll work hard to improve food safety and increase the number of farms in West Virginia. A career Marine who took up farming following two decades in the military, he also wants to find ways to get returning veterans into the agriculture business.
But Leonhardt wants you to know this: Right now, the cows come first.
One recent day, the candidate spent his mid-morning mowing hay in a field he leases from a neighbor a few miles from his own farm. This was the second cut of the year, when the hay is protein- and nutrient-rich, so he'll use the resulting bales to feed his sheep and goats this winter.
A Ford pickup pulled onto the dirt road running alongside the field. It was Ward Wyatt, a political consultant from Austin, Texas, who moved to West Virginia a few months back to run Leonhardt's campaign.
Wyatt had driven from his Huntington office to spend the day with Leonhardt. After making one last pass around the field with his tractor, Leonhardt hopped off to talk. He asked Wyatt if he needed to attend the Farm Bureau meeting that night.
Wyatt said it was Leonhardt's decision. The bureau wasn't expecting a big turnout, and the group already had promised to support the campaign.
"Well, I might just stay here and cut this hay," the candidate said.
Such are the dilemmas of the agriculture commissioner race.
On a typical day, Leonhardt, 58, gets out of bed at 5:30 a.m. After firing off a few emails to Wyatt, he goes to meet the constituents he can already claim.
The 380-acre farm is mostly hillside, but Leonhardt has a few pastures divided into paddocks where he keeps 29 goats, 46 sheep and about 30 head of cattle. He visits each group to make sure everyone is OK.
"You make sure your animals have food and water and a healthy environment before you do anything else. The animals' health is the most important thing," he said. "The healthier the animal, the better the growth."
If all is well in the barn, he moves to other chores. He might mow a field or mend some fences. Other times, he will do maintenance work on his farm equipment.
Or, as has been the case in recent months, Leonhardt will try to convince West Virginians he's the best man to run one of the state's largest agencies.
He doesn't have any political experience. He ran twice for Monongalia County Conservation District supervisor and lost both times, although he says those were half-hearted endeavors.
There is nothing half-hearted about his campaign for state agriculture commissioner, however. There can't be. Leonhardt is running for an office that's been held by a Democrat for more than 40 years, except for a four-year fluke in the 1980s.
And he's running against longtime Democratic State Senator Walt Helmick, who has political experience in spades and name recognition from a highly publicized primary campaign.
The Republicans have tried to make up for that handicap by attacking Helmick's farming background.
State law says the agriculture commissioner should be a "practical farmer" and have made agriculture his or her "chief business" for 10 years before being elected.
Helmick raises neither livestock nor crops, but he runs a successful water bottling operation from his Pocahontas County property.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled earlier this year the "practical farmer" requirement is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from constantly deriding Helmick as a "fake farmer."
Wyatt said the GOP plans to challenge Helmick to a goat-milking contest before the Nov. 6 election. Leonhardt recently won third place in a goat-milking contest at the Berkeley County Fair.
But the race is about more than farms and farmers, and Leonhardt acknowledges that. The Department of Agriculture also manages animal health, plant science and food safety and has some environmental regulation duties.
"Every West Virginian needs to be concerned with this race," he said. "This isn't just about farmers. It's about every West Virginian."
He points to the windstorms that rocked West Virginia and neighboring states in late June.
"There's only a seven-day supply of food in West Virginia," he said. "When the derecho went through, it wiped out a lot of freezers."
He said the Department of Agriculture did a good job after the storm, mobilizing to distribute food to state residents.
"They did a monumental job for something that was unexpected," he said.