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Candidates for W.Va. agriculture chief have similar plans for farming industry

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Candidates for state agriculture commissioner say they want to grow West Virginia's farming industry, and they have similar ideas about how to make that happen.

In a meeting with the Daily Mail's editorial board on Monday, both Walt Helmick, the Democrat contender, and Kent Leonhardt, the Republican candidate, say the key to increasing the number of farmers in West Virginia is to create a market for their products.

"If you create a market, the farmer will produce it," Leonhardt said.

He said the state Department of Agriculture needs to increase the number of farmers markets in West Virginia, and that would make those fresh fruits and vegetables available to inner-city residents and senior citizens. It would increase the quality of food sold in the state, improve food safety and save money on energy costs.

"If we're growing it here, we don't have to pay the transportation costs," he said.

Leonhardt - who raises cattle, sheep and goats on a 300-acre farm in Monongalia County - also said West Virginia is in a prime location to export its goods to other states.

"Right now, West Virginia is 10 hours' drive from 30 percent of the population of the United States. That's fresh fruits, vegetables, meats. What I saw in developing my farm is, West Virginia should be meeting those needs," he said.

Helmick said he agreed but pointed out it is difficult for small farmers to compete with major operations like Walmart. The key to success, he said, is finding a niche market where there isn't any competition.

Helmick, who runs a small water bottling business from his Pocahontas County property, said it's impossible for him to compete with major bottlers like Pepsi or Coca Cola.

"We can't do it at 13 cents (per bottle). We're not going to do 3,000 bottles a minute," he said.

Helmick's plant spends about 25 cents per bottle, and can produce only about 1,000 bottles per minute. He said his business has been successful because he offers a product major companies do not: private-label water bottles. The company sells water to Allegheny Insurance, the Hatfield-McCoy trails and Charleston Area Medical Center, among others.

"We can compete in those niche markets, where we see a need," he said.

Leonhardt said the state Legislature has held businesses back. He said lawmakers have allowed the state to fall behind on education and done little to encourage people to live and work here.

"We've been held back for so many years," he said. "Why isn't West Virginia flourishing? I think we need to get in there and bring West Virginia into a new era."

Helmick, a longtime state senator, defended the Legislature's work. He said he has owned businesses in the state since 1973.

"I believe there's no better place I could have done what I've done," he said. "The taxes are very, very good on farmland-designated properties in West Virginia. I helped do that.

"We have to change our lifestyle in West Virginia. That's one of our biggest problems," Helmick said. "We have a difficult time with the workforce because of nutrition problems."

When asked which presidential candidate's policies would work best for the agriculture industry, Leonhardt quickly backed Republican candidate Mitt Romney. He said Romney's business background and energy plan make him the best pick for farmers

"Agriculture is one of the largest users of energy. That's the biggest issue facing agriculture right now. Prices are going up to feed livestock and everything else," he said.

Helmick declined to state his choice. He said he disagrees with some of President Barack Obama's actions and says policies from the president's Environmental Protection Agency have been too strict.

He would not say if he would vote against the president, however. Helmick said he has never asked anyone who they would vote for, and no one has ever asked him.

"I'm a Democrat and I'll leave it at that," he said.

To watch the full editorial board meeting, visit

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or Follow him at


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