Some West Virginians may not realize that they get to elect the state's top agriculture official, but that isn't discouraging the five Democrats seeking their party's nomination for the job.
Other races on the ballot usually overshadow the office. But with few contested state-level matches set for the May 8 primary, voters this year must choose a successor to retiring Commissioner Gus Douglass. The 85-year-old Democrat is the nation's longest-serving agriculture chief, having been elected to a total of 11 terms since 1964.
Douglass' departure is prompting two top officials at the department, Steve Miller and Bob Tabb, to seek to succeed their boss. A third Democratic candidate, Jim Messineo, recently retired from there. Another of the Democrats, Sally Shepherd, ran for the office in 1988 when Douglass made an unsuccessful bid for governor. State Sen. Walt Helmick rounds out that primary field.
"It gives me a chance to work in my areas of economic development and job creation," Helmick, a former Senate Finance Committee chair, said of his interest in the post.
The department has the third-largest budget among the six statewide executive branch offices, with $64.3 million from various sources allotted for the current year. Excluding the governor's Cabinet departments, it has the largest staff of these executive offices with the equivalent of 360 full-time employees.
The size of the department somewhat reflects its array of duties.
"If you eat every day, you should be concerned about the Department of Agriculture," said Miller, of Mineral County. "There's a small army of people watching our food supply. That's important because our food supply is very vulnerable, very fragile."
The office has developed a homeland security component in recent years but has long had inspectors checking out crops, dairy barns, cattle pens, butcher counters and retail stores.
"We have inspectors for feeds, seeds and fertilizers, to make sure that what's on the tag is what's in the bag," noted Messineo, of Roane County.
Other tasks include targeting coyotes that prey on livestock, battling black flies, gypsy moths and other pests, and encouraging the state's pollinating bee population. The scope of the department's operations may surprise non-farming residents.
"Agriculture touches every person's life, every day in this state, because of what we do," said Tabb, of Jefferson County. "The way it's been done, they haven't been negatively impacted. They're not going hungry, they're not being made sick by the products."