Zack Harold

freelance journalist

High Hopes for a New Cash Crop

This story originally appeared in the August/September ’16 issue of Morgantown Magazine.

Susanna Wheeler prefers not to divulge the location of her summer garden. She’ll admit it is planted on WVU property, but that is as much information as she’s comfortable giving out. “We don’t want people to try to come up here and see what’s going on,” says the agronomy graduate student.

That’s because her crop, planted in neat rows on a quarter-acre plot, is instantly recognizable from certain dorm room posters, reggae albums, and Willie Nelson T-shirts. If you’ve ever stumbled into a shop that sells “for tobacco use only” items, you’ll instantly recognize its green, serrated leaves. Susanna Wheeler is growing Cannabis sativa.

Wheeler’s secrecy has nothing to do with getting in trouble with the law. She’s not worried about that. She just doesn’t want to attract any snooping onlookers who might interrupt her very important work—a research project that could potentially change West Virginia’s agriculture industry forever.

While her cannabis plants look identical to marijuana, they contain only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for the plant’s popularity as a recreational drug. That’s why Wheeler and others who work with the crop usually refer to it as “hemp.” It’s the hard-working, buttoned-down member of the cannabis family, with a long history of industrial use. The ships that brought European settlers to the New World were all outfitted with strong hemp ropes, and hemp was one of the first crops grown in the English colonies. But it fell out of use over the last century as it was outlawed alongside its psychedelic cousins.

There is hope for a comeback, however. Laws are slowly changing, and farmers around the country are beginning to take an interest in hemp again. West Virginia is beginning its own experiment with hemp this year. If the plant is able to thrive in West Virginia’s soil and growers can find willing markets, proponents believe hemp could be the next big industry our state so desperately needs—to the tune of millions of dollars and dozens of market applications.


It wasn’t too long ago that growing hemp, for any reason, was downright illegal. Despite hemp’s lack of THC, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still considers any varietal of cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. It’s on the same list as heroin, LSD, mescaline, and MDMA, also popularly known as Ecstasy. But when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, lawmakers included a provision allowing state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for research purposes, as long as state law allowed for hemp farming.

West Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, which was the nation’s largest grower of hemp before it was outlawed, has made a large investment in hemp research. After beginning with just about 30 acres of hemp in 2014, this year the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved more than 160 individual growers, not including university projects, to produce almost 4,500 acres of hemp.

Although Kentucky’s program is still focused entirely on research—that’s all federal law allows, after all—several processors have sprung up in the state to purchase growers’ crops. There are companies that process the fiber for textile production, clean the seeds for food use, and extract and refine oil from the seeds. There’s even a distillery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that makes hemp grain moonshine.

Hemp farming has technically been legal in West Virginia since the 1990s. The law as it was written allowed growers to raise hemp as long as they obtained permits from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the DEA. No hemp was ever legally grown since neither agency was issuing hemp permits back then, but the state wanted to be ready in case that day eventually arrived.

After Congress revised the Farm Bill, state lawmakers in 2015 removed the requirements for a DEA permit from West Virginia Code and created an application process for the hemp program. Eric Ewing, director of the agriculture department’s Plant Industries Division, says he got many phone calls when that application process began on June 1, 2015. But only a few growers actually decided to take the plunge.

Seven West Virginia growers, including Wheeler, now have full licenses to grow hemp. Morgan Leach, executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, estimates those growers have a combined 10 acres of hemp in the ground. Each operation will receive regular visits by Ewing and his staff as they test THC levels in the plants, because state law requires levels to be below 0.3 percent. “Most of them are starting small, which makes sense,” Ewing says. “Anything new like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re in our infancy.”


Marty Biafora, director of operations for Morgantown-based iHemp, says his company is growing about 5 acres of hemp this year and soon will begin growing plants indoors at a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic facility. When it comes time this fall to harvest those plants, Biafora says there isn’t much use for them. Hemp can’t be transported across state lines—more about that below— and there’s nowhere to process hemp in West Virginia right now.

But Biafora isn’t concerned. He fully expects it will be years before the hemp industry turns a profit. “Our goal is to just get seed in the ground, get it up, go through the process of harvesting whatever amount we have, so we can know what to expect next year,” he says. “This is just an exploratory process to get the industry up and rolling.”

So what might the hemp industry look like once it’s all grown up? Leach imagines a day when the abandoned warehouses dotting the

Ohio River Valley are filled with hemp or hemp products waiting to be loaded onto river barges, trains, and trucks and shipped to the rest of the world.

“There is not another crop on the planet that has the utility of hemp,” Leach says. Its fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, rope, insulation, plastics, concrete substitutes, and fiberboard that’s stronger and lighter than wood. Leach is president of Agri Carb Electric, a company that he hopes will make hyper-efficient batteries from hemp fiber.

But the uses don’t end there. Hemp seeds are packed with proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that proponents claim boost immunity, prevent varicose veins, and lower cholesterol, among other purported health benefits. Hemp seeds also can be pressed to extract oils, which can be turned into biofuels, paint, detergent, and a legion of other products.

In 2015, the U.S. retail market sold more than $570 million in products made from hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, the Hemp Industries Association estimates. That includes $280 million in hemp food, food supplements, and body care products, up more than 10 percent over 2014 sales figures.

Leach believes sales will continue to grow as the industry develops—28 states now have laws allowing hemp research—and he’s confident hemp could be the big diversifier West Virginia’s fossil fuel-focused economy needs. He’s been in contact with a company that makes mats for mechanics, for which it imports 500 tons of hemp each year from Bangladesh. There’s also a food producer that uses 400 tons of hemp seed per year.

Capturing even a fraction of the international hemp market could be an unprecedented boon for the state’s agriculture sector. Most of West Virginia’s farmers do their work on evenings and weekends while relying on day jobs to pay the bills. According to 2007 Census statistics, four out of five West Virginia farms make less than $10,000 a year.

Leach says he doesn’t know how large the Department of Agriculture will allow the pilot program to get, but the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative already has about 40 people interested in growing hemp on their properties next year. “It’s a wide-open space, if you can navigate the legal hurdles to get it done,” he says. “As long as the sun shines, we’re in business.”

But, as Ewing at the agriculture department pointed out, the modern hemp industry is still only a seedling. It’s unclear what the fully grown business would look like—how deep its roots would go, how wide its leaves would reach. We don’t even know for sure how well the plant will grow in the state.

This is where Susanna Wheeler comes in.


If a West Virginia farmer needs advice for growing tomatoes, watermelons, wheat, asparagus, alfalfa, or any other common agricultural product, experts at the WVU Extension Service can provide most of the information she needs. Extension agents have access to data on the best times to plant crops, the best times to fertilize them, proper soil acidities, the optimal spacing of plants in fields, and many other variables. But, for the most part, hemp growers in West Virginia are flying blind.

Wheeler came back to WVU last fall. The Charleston native earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2012, then moved to Nicholas County, where she spent some time growing vegetables for farmers’ markets, growing sorghum for molasses, and tapping maple trees for syrup. When she returned to Morgantown to work on her master’s degree, she planned to spend her first summer researching cover crops, varieties of plants grown during agricultural downtimes to protect and enrich the soil.

But then her roommate mentioned the agriculture department’s hemp program. “I started reading about the legislation that was passed and decided I’d like to do a small experiment on the side,” she says.

The more she learned about hemp, however, the more she realized a small experiment wouldn’t be enough. “We know almost nothing about how it will grow in the state. We don’t know what varieties to recommend, we don’t know what fertilizer to recommend,” says Louis McDonald, WVU professor of plant and soil sciences and Wheeler’s adviser. Most of the U.S.-based hemp research Wheeler has uncovered dates back to the 1940s. “It’s not really relevant to our modern agricultural practices,” she says.

Wheeler discovered some basic information from a French textbook, along with a few journal articles and research papers. She got some advice from growers in Kentucky whose own hemp

experiments began a few years back. But there’s nowhere for West Virginia farmers to get state-specific information about hemp. “There’s so much research that needs to be done. I immediately became overwhelmed,” she says. She pitched the idea to McDonald, who agreed to give it a shot.

After completing the application process with the state agriculture department—which included state and federal background checks—Wheeler obtained an importer permit from the DEA before tracking down overseas companies to provide her hemp seeds. “They’re not plentiful. It’s not like, let’s go to Southern States and get some varieties or do a quick Google search.” She eventually found a broker based in Kentucky who had relationships with Italian and Polish hemp seed vendors. The seeds mostly arrived without incident, although U.S. Customs in New York held up one order for three weeks.

Wheeler finally planted the first of her seeds in late May, in that undisclosed half-acre plot on WVU property. She planted five varieties of hemp to see how well they would grow in West Virginia’s soil and climate conditions under different fertility levels, which she controls by adding compost to the plants.

She also began a second, smaller research project in late June to test hemp’s abilities as a “hyperaccumulator.” Other researchers’ findings suggest the plant might be able to extract harmful elements like cadmium, lead, and zinc from the ground. Wheeler has a few dozen plants growing in pots of contaminated soil at a WVU greenhouse. If the results prove promising, hemp eventually could be used to remediate former industrial sites.


For all the excitement surrounding hemp, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear before the plant can become a full-fledged cash crop. Lawmakers earlier this year passed an amendment to the agriculture department’s rules to exclude private growers from the hemp program.

“That’s what our attorneys advised us,” says State Senator Bob Williams, a Democrat from Taylor County, who made the amendment. He says West Virginia Code only allows the Department of Agriculture and state colleges and universities to grow hemp, so issuing permits to private growers is beyond the department’s authority. “We were trying to make the rule conform with the code.”

The changes disquieted hemp growers, many of whom had already invested money into the project, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill but Williams still believes the Department of Agriculture is operating the project outside the bounds of state law. “I’m not a lawyer, that’s just my opinion. But I think the law is clear as to what is allowed,” he says.

The agriculture department reads the law a little differently.

Chris Ferro, the department’s chief of staff, says the Farm Bill clearly allows for cultivation and marketing of hemp. “While there’s no definition of marketing (in the law), a dictionary definition of marketing means to sell,” he says. “Our interpretation was, if Congress wanted us to research and market, that’s what we intended to do.”

Federal laws and regulations provide their own challenges to hemp growers and officials. When Eric Ewing had to take hemp seeds from his office in Charleston to a grower in the Eastern Panhandle, he couldn’t drive his normal route through Virginia and Maryland. “I had to go all back roads, staying in-state, because if I’d crossed state lines I would have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.” That’s a felony.

Ewing also made sure to bring lots of identification and paperwork on the off chance he’d be stopped by a curious police officer along the way. “We were very careful not to speed. Not that we aren’t always, but we were extra careful,” he says.

And even once the hemp is fully grown, growers cannot transport their crop across state lines—it must first be processed into textiles, paper, seed oil, or other products. But as of right now, there aren’t any producers in West Virginia ready to turn raw hemp into end-use products. One grower does have plans to buy a seed oil press, but his operation is not up and running yet. “It’s going to lose its novelty unless you can sell it,” Louis McDonald says.

Morgan Leach at the hemp farmers’ co-op says these issues likely will not go away until Congress completely legalizes hemp. And until that happens, the hemp industry likely will not get the one thing it needs most to thrive: money.

For the time being, Wheeler is doing all her research alone, for no pay. McDonald says the agronomic study of hemp is so new it’s difficult to get funding for research. “Because it’s such a rigmarole to get seed, nobody’s willing to give you money until you can show you’re able to get seed. My hope is we can do this little project now, get the seed, collect data, secure our plots, do the research … (and) next year it will give us leverage,” he says. “Lots of university people are interested, but they don’t have money to do additional research. It’s always the problem: Where’s the money going to come from?”

McDonald says if the industry ever takes off in West Virginia, we’ll have Wheeler to thank. “She has done an enormous amount of work,” he says. “She’s the one who’s worked with these seed companies, worked with the Department of Agriculture, tried to get these additional growers to participate. It would not be here without her.”

Despite worries about money and legality, Wheeler is plowing ahead. Her projects will likely run through October, when she will harvest seed from the hemp plants. If she’s able to get enough funding, she’d like to test soil samples to see how hemp changes soil’s chemical makeup.

She knows these experiments will only answer a handful of the questions that remain about hemp. But it’s a start. “There’s a lot of speculation,” Wheeler says. “There are prolific pro- and anti-hemp beliefs. But right now, they’re just that. Beliefs.”

To the Dogs

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

When Sam Burdette first visited the Tri- State Greyhound Park in Cross Lanes in the mid-1980s, he didn’t even know how to read the program. The sheets of paper were filled with an overwhelming array of fractions and decimals, arranged in almost indecipherable rows and columns. A buddy had to help him navigate—the strange figures were statistics for each dog in a race, detailing the animal’s weight, past race times, total number of races, and odds of winning, along with the names of the dog’s owner, kennel, and trainer.

Burdette caught on quick. He won $600 on a $60 bet that first night and started mulling a strategy to make some real money. He would use the race standings to figure out which kennels had the most successful dogs, and then bet only on dogs from those kennels. Burdette was a civil engineer, comfortable with crunching numbers. He started keeping a notebook, making hypothetical bets on races based on the handicapping numbers in the program. “Each day I’d tally it up and see if I was ahead or behind. I was approaching it from an analytical standpoint.”

The experiment ran for three months. By the end Burdette realized if he had used real money, he would be $200 behind. “I said, well, you can’t buy groceries with that. My object was to take money away from the racetrack, not leave it there,” he says. “To this day, I don’t bet.”

Instead, Burdette made what he considered a safer wager. After years of hopping from state to state with his job, he moved back home to West Virginia in 1997 to take care of his ailing mother and father. He retired from engineering and decided to start raising greyhounds. He had learned a lot about the industry during his brief stint as a pretend professional gambler, and he fell in love with the dogs.

It was more than the dogs, however. In 1990 the state legislature took a portion of greyhound wagering money and created the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. In addition to the purse money breeders received when their dogs placed in races, they would now get monthly checks from the state Racing Commission. The payout was determined by the amount of money in the fund and the number of points an owner’s dogs earned during races that month. The more dogs a breeder raised and raced, and the better those dogs performed, the larger the checks would be.

Successful breeders were soon receiving thousands of dollars each month from the fund. As a result, those breeders began doubling down on their investments. They started raising more dogs and taking out loans to expand their kennels. Out-of-state breeders began moving to West Virginia, even though they were required to live here for four years before receiving any money from the fund.

“That’s when I decided to start raising dogs,” says kennel operator Harvey Maupin. He grew up in Colorado, where his father raised and raced greyhounds. As he got older, Maupin began training dogs, and he came to West Virginia in 1988 to work as a dog trainer. He whelped his first few litters around 1995, raising the dogs in the backyard of his Cross Lanes home. He later purchased a farm in Red House in 2000. As his operation grew, he spent $140,000 to get a kennel at Tri-State, and about $100,000 for a partnership in a kennel at the Wheeling Island greyhound track. At one point, Maupin had 15 employees.

“Times were booming,” says Burdette, who is now president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. “The Legislature had done something that actually worked. We had created a greyhound breeding industry. Wheeling was the number-one track in the United States. People were making a living at greyhound racing.”

But then the industry’s luck began to change. Nationwide interest in greyhound racing started declining. In 2001 there were greyhound tracks in 15 states around the country. West Virginia is now one of only seven states that continue to race dogs, and the sport has grown increasingly unpopular in this state as well.

A few things are to blame for this downturn in interest. Greyhound racing has faced increased scrutiny by animal rights groups like Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks reports of racing-related injuries and abuse. The group’s findings often gain media attention, which has helped turn many animal lovers away from the sport. But animal welfare concerns are not the biggest threat to the greyhound industry. The major declines in attendance and revenues have come from an enemy familiar to most industries—competition.

In early 1994 the West Virginia Legislature legalized video lottery terminals—better known as slot machines—at state greyhound tracks. By September the machines were up and running at both greyhound tracks. It seemed like a mutually beneficial move for racetracks and the racing industry. Tracks gained an additional revenue stream and, because of the way legislators crafted the law, greyhound breeders and kennel operators would be allowed to continue racing while also taking a 15 percent cut of video lottery money, which was added to race purses and the breeding development fund.

But over time, the slot machines that were supposed to help the greyhound industry began to overtake it. “People switched over from racing to slot machines. They and sit there in a trance and push that button,” Burdette says. He likes to joke—not incorrectly— that it used to take all night to lose $50 at the dog track. With a slot machine, it can take just a few minutes.

Competition only increased after the legislature legalized table games like blackjack, roulette, and craps in 2007. The racetracks began rebranding themselves accordingly. In 2008 both Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center and Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center changed their names. They are now Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort. Live racing had gone from the main attraction to just one more way to gamble and was losing customers in droves to the one-armed bandits.

In addition to the troubles at the racetrack, the greyhound industry has also faced repeated challenges from the statehouse. Every few years, it seems lawmakers take a look at the millions of dollars in subsidies dedicated to greyhound racing and usually decide that money could be better spent elsewhere. In 2001 the legislature put a cap on video lottery subsidies to greyhound racing, with revenues over that cap flowing into the state’s general revenue fund. In 2005 state lawmakers took another chunk of greyhound purse supplements to create the Workers Compensation Debt Reduction Fund. Then, last year, lawmakers again cut greyhound subsidies with the passage of a so-called “haircut bill,” which reduced money for purses and the development fund by 10 percent.

The Spectrum Report

Although it was clear the greyhound racing was suffering, no one had collected the evidence to prove it. So in 2014 the legislature ordered a $68,000 comprehensive study of the industry. The West Virginia Department of Revenue hired the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study, and the completed report was presented to lawmakers in January 2015. The findings were discouraging.

Although West Virginia does not track attendance figures at greyhound tracks, the Spectrum report found live wagering on races fell by 55 percent between 2004 and 2013, from $35 million to $15.8 million. Researchers also found the greyhound industry now largely relies on video lottery and table games revenues for its purse awards. When purse supplements were first put in place at Mardi Gras in 1995, subsidies from slot machine revenues made up 49 percent of total purse awards. Four years later, slot machine subsidies made up 75 percent of purses. Now more than 95 percent of total purses come from video lottery and table games like blackjack and roulette.

The additional revenue still wasn’t enough to stem the decline in purses, however. As greyhound wagering has declined, slot machine and table game revenues have also fallen as new out-of-state casinos steal gamblers away from West Virginia. As a result, greyhound purse awards declined from $30 million in 2004 to about $18 million in 2013. Without the subsidies, last year’s purses would have been only about $900,000. Most of that purse money also goes to out-of-state greyhound owners. Only $2.6 million of the $11.7 million in purse awards paid at Wheeling Island in 2013 went to West Virginia owners, according to the Spectrum report.

As surprising as some of the findings were, the report only confirmed what many people—lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and track officials—already knew. “It’s not only decreasing in popularity, it’s dead,” says Danny Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras’ parent company, Hartman & Tyner, Inc. And so, for the first time since greyhound racing came to West Virginia in 1976, lawmakers have started looking in earnest for a way out of the dog racing business.


Shutting down greyhound racing is not as easy as it sounds. Back when West Virginia legalized slot machines and table games, legislators included language in the bills requiring greyhound racing to continue alongside those other activities. Casinos never loved that idea. Adkins compares it to the government telling Ford Motor Company, “you can continue to build all the F-150s you want to build, as long as you build the Model T.”

But that’s the law. If racing stopped tomorrow, so would all other forms of gambling at the casinos, unless the legislature passed another law to decouple the activities. If and when that occurs, it will be very important for lawmakers to get the legislation absolutely right. West Virginia uses gambling revenues to fund lots of programs, from the PROMISE scholarship to senior centers, and also uses the money to pay off bonds for projects like the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston and Pullman Square in Huntington. Credit rating agencies would get pretty anxious if the state compromised one of its major revenue streams.

About a month into this year’s legislative session, state Senator Ron Stollings of Boone County introduced a bill crafted by the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association to create a “greyhound racing cessation program.” The bill would have put an end to greyhound racing in West Virginia by July 1, 2015—while also taking $37.5 million from the breeder development fund to bankroll a three-year-long buyout of the industry.

The breeders association previously put forward a bill in the House of Delegates to create a $75 million buyout, but that number didn’t sit well with lawmakers. The state Senate version was more conservative and included $1 million to cover administrative costs and handle adoptions of the greyhounds. The remaining $36.5 million would be distributed among greyhound owners in the state. Payouts would be determined by how many years an individual participated in the breeding development fund, how much money the breeder received from the fund, and how many greyhounds the breeder raised. Breeders who also operated racetrack kennels would be eligible for additional compensation.

Stollings, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he knows very little about greyhounds and did not expect the to bill pass, but he hoped it would spark conversations among his fellow lawmakers. “The writing’s on the wall. Obviously the profitability has gone south,” he says. “The idea was, let’s see if there is some way to have a graceful exit.” The bill was ultimately shoved to the side while lawmakers worked on more pressing issues, however.

For the first time in more than 80 years, Republicans were the majority party in the statehouse this session. To celebrate, the caucus took on an ambitious agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a Republican from Putnam County, said his committee had more than 200 bills to consider over the 60-day session while also preparing the state’s 2016 budget.

Hall says his committee tried to look into the greyhound buyout but there was not enough time to adequately research the issue. “The lottery statute is very complicated and intertwined,” he says. “The unintended consequences of trying to unwind it in the last two weeks were massive.” As the clock struck midnight on March 14, bringing the 2015 regular legislative session to an end, the buyout bill was still stuck in committee.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee along with their counterparts in the House of Delegates will continue to examine the issue over the next year during legislative interim meetings. “I suspect by next legislative year, we’ll be somewhere with these decisions,” Hall says.

Burdette says members of his organization are well aware of the state of their industry. “As times change, as technology changes, they have to change their business model. If it’s no longer beneficial to have greyhound racing, fine.” But he is adamant a buyout should be included in the phase-out plan. The way Burdette and many members of his organization see it, all those purse subsidies and development fund money were a business agreement between breeders and the state. Breeders agreed to raise dogs and invest money in the industry while the state, through legislation, agreed it would make sure the dogs kept running. “We reinvested with the belief things were going to continue,” he says.

If the state should break its side of that perceived bargain, Burdette believes breeders deserve something in return. He says breeders need the cash to pay off loans and transition into other livelihoods. Maupin says the breeders association has discussed taking legal action against the state if racing ends without a buyout. “This is not a natural death. This is not just, ‘You’re a bad businessman,’” Maupin says. “They’re breaking their promise.”

But outside of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, there does not seem to be much support for a buyout. Adkins at Mardi Gras Casino calls the idea “absurd.” Hall says while Stollings’ bill became a “vehicle” for discussing the issue, the bill would never have passed as written. He says there’s not much appetite among Republicans for a buyout. “People took on a business risk when they got into this,” he says. While state subsidies might have enticed breeders to get into the business, Hall does not believe the state has a responsibility to help them get out. “A legislature in the past cannot bind a future legislature,” he says.

There is even a group of greyhound owners who do not believe a buyout is the correct course of action. Despite what lawmakers, track officials, and the breeders association say, the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association insists greyhound racing is still a moneymaking business and should be allowed to continue. “There are plenty of breeders—a lot of big breeders in West Virginia—who are profitable,” says board member Steve Sarras.

Sarras admits the industry isn’t what it used to be. In addition to racing at West Virginia tracks, he stays afloat by sending dogs to Arkansas and Florida to race. He has also tightened his belt at his kennel in Wheeling, eliminating some bonuses and limiting his six employees’ overtime pay. But Sarras says greyhound racing remains a viable enterprise. “Have our profits gone down? Yes. Can we still sustain as a business?” Sarras thinks so.

He says breeders who are pushing for a buyout are just looking for an easy way out of the business—a government-funded retirement plan. “In my opinion, they were just trying to get a handout at the expense of state taxpayers,” he says.

Naturally, Burdette and Maupin disagree. They allege breeders like Sarras and other members of his organization are only able to make money because they are the biggest fish in an evershrinking pond. “They want to keep it going because they’re the ones making the last little bit,” Maupin says.

But Burdette admits some smaller breeders—members of his own organization—also do not want to give up on racing just yet. They hope things will eventually get better, that wagering trends will turn around and the legislature will restore cuts to subsidies. “They hope against hope,” he says.

Maupin doesn’t want to stop racing, but says a buyout is better than a “starve out.” Times have gotten tight for him. He no longer raises greyhounds—the kennel on his big farm is empty. He let the kennel in Wheeling go in November 2013 and now leases dogs from a breeder in Wheeling to fill his kennel at Mardi Gras. When he couldn’t afford his trainer anymore, Maupin went back to training the dogs himself. Instead of 15 employees, he’s down to two. His 27-year-old stepson keeps asking to join the family business, but he refuses. “He keeps wanting to be in it and I’m like, ‘No. This is not going to last.’ I keep pushing him away.”

Instead of raising dogs, Burdette now spends most days substitute teaching for Kanawha County Schools. “After I got up to my neck, I stopped wading out,” he says. He has seven greyhounds left but is working to find them homes. Except one, Hickory. Burdette plans to keep him. Hickory only ran about 30 races before being forced into retirement by an ankle injury, but during that time earned more than $50,000. “He was a good running dog—and I just like him.”

Shot at a second chance

This story was original published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

In late October 2011, storm winds brought down trees all around James Ball’s home near Danville, making the road to his home impassable. It was a terrible time to have a drug overdose.

Ball’s cousin, Delegate Josh Nelson, recently took to the floor of the House of Delegates to recount what happened next. Someone called 911 once it was clear Ball needed medical attention, but paramedics could not make it up the 10-mile-long hollow where he lived. Nelson and his family members tried to cut the trees out of the roadway with chainsaws. They tried to drag the trees out of the way with all-terrain vehicles. But despite their work, the ambulance only made it halfway to Ball’s house.

Desperate, they switched strategies and loaded Ball onto a stretcher, strapped the stretcher to an ATV, and hauled him to the ambulance. “Unfortunately we did not get it there in time and he passed on,” Nelson told his fellow lawmakers. “It was too late.”

Ball battled his addiction to prescription painkillers for years, Nelson says. More than once he started attending church, trying to live right, only to have his demons drag him back to the bottom. “He would kind of get better and do it again,” Nelson says. Ball had overdosed before but was lucky enough to get to a hospital in time for doctors to resuscitate him. On October 28, 2011, his time ran out.

Nelson says Ball probably would still be alive, however, if his family members had access to Naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” medication that oftentimes can save the life of someone suffering from a heroin or painkiller overdose.

The medication, sometimes known by its brand name Narcan, has been on the market for more than 30 years but, until recently, only medical professionals had access to it. During his State of the State address in January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to put Naloxone in the hands of both emergency responders and addicts’ loved ones. “By expanding access to this life-saving drug, we can prevent overdose deaths and give those suffering from substance abuse the opportunity to seek help, overcome their addiction, and return to their families, workplaces, and communities,” Tomblin said in the speech.

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, according to a 2013 report by Trust for America’s Health. In 2010 there were 28.9 fatalities per 100,000 people in the state, the highest per-capita rate in the nation. That is also a 605 percent increase over 1999, when the state had just 4.1 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. Gary Mendell, CEO of the anti-drug lobbying group Shatterproof, says many of those lives could have been saved if Naloxone were more readily available.

Members of the state Senate passed a bill to deregulate the overdose antidote during the 2014 regular session, but the measure failed to gain traction in the House of Delegates. Governor Tomblin’s proposed legislation did not meet the same fate, however. It passed the Senate with a unanimous vote in early February. A little more than a week later, following Nelson’s heartfelt floor speech, it received another unanimous vote in the House of Delegates.

Tomblin signed the bill into law on March 9, so by the end of May state doctors will be able to prescribe Naloxone to drug addicts’ family, friends, and caregivers, as well as police and firefighters. The medicine can be given through a single-use shot, like an EpiPen, or a nasal spray. And while the law also created a limited liability statute for those administering Naloxone, the medicine carries little risk. It’s not even dangerous if given to someone who is not experiencing an overdose. “There’s no negative effects. It’s not addictive. There’s no abuse potential,” Mendell says.

Naloxone works by blocking the receptors in the brain affected by opioids, a category of drugs that includes heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and methadone. By blocking the receptors, the medicine temporarily stalls the opioids’ effects on the body. The results usually are immediate. Most overdose victims in respiratory distress begin breathing regularly within minutes of receiving a dose.

The medicine is not without risks, however. It does not work on non-opioid drug overdoses—meaning it would be useless on cocaine or methamphetamine addicts, for instance—and overdose patients still must seek medical attention even if they feel fine after receiving Naloxone. Dr. David Seidler, chairman of Charleston Area Medical Center’s emergency medicine residency program and medical director for the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority, says overdose patients often refuse medical treatment after being revived with Naloxone. “They refuse to go to the hospital because they wake up and they’re feeling fine, or they wake up and they’re pissed off,” he says.

And Naloxone does not always last as long as the opioids it neutralizes. The medication can wear off while the other drugs are still coursing through an addict’s veins. “There’s a risk they’ll become unconscious again and potentially could die,” Seidler says. “Thirty or 40 minutes later, if they had a big enough overdose, they’ll be unconscious again.” If that happens, medical treatment at a hospital is an overdose victim’s best chance at survival.

Rodney Miller, president of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, says he’s glad officers will now be allowed to use Naloxone. Police often arrive at the scene of overdoses long before ambulance crews, but since state law limited the medication to medical professionals, “we couldn’t, by law, have Narcan in our possession, let alone administer it,” Miller says.

He says expanding Naloxone’s availability will not solve West Virginia’s rampant drug abuse problems. But, he admits, that’s not the point. “The spirit of this legislation is, if you’ve got a person that’s an accidental overdose, it can save their life and give them a second chance.” It will be up to the addict to decide what to make of his second chance.

The Flip

This story was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Talking with Bill Cole, you get the sense he doesn’t use phrases like “over the moon” very often. But that’s how the baritone-voiced, serious-faced Senate President describes his frame of mind on election night 2014.

Although he was not up for reelection, Cole was the chairman for state Senator Evan Jenkins’ campaign for U.S. House of Representatives. He started off election night at a party for Jenkins in Huntington before hopping in his car and speeding down Interstate 64 toward Embassy Suites in Charleston, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and members of the state GOP were watching election returns for her U.S. Senate race.

When he was about 10 miles outside the capital city, his cell phone rang with some big news. Jenkins had successfully unseated 38-year incumbent Congressman Nick Rahall. Cole kept the hammer down. “About the time I hit city limits, my phone started blowing up,” he says. It was more big news. The Republican Party, long relegated to a nearly powerless minority status in West Virginia politics, had taken control of the state House of Delegates. By the end of the night, the GOP also would succeed in tying the formerly Democrat-controlled state Senate.

The national Republican “wave,” as it was being called on cable news networks, had come crashing ashore in the landlocked Mountain State. “I was over the moon,” Cole says. “It was a phenomenal night.” The victory celebrations did not last long, however. By the next morning Cole was at the state Capitol, huddling with fellow Republican senators, trying to figure out how a 17-17 tie in the state Senate might work. Then the phone rang again, with a solution to their problem.

Daniel Hall, the 40-year-old Democratic state senator from Wyoming County, had an interesting election night as well. He spent much of 2014 working on the reelection campaign of his friend Raleigh County state Senator Mike Green, who was running against Republican challenger Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins.

Shortly before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Hall sent Mullins a text message to congratulate him for a well-fought campaign. “I was fully confident Mike Green was going to win,” he says. Not long after, the first election returns were released. Green was trailing behind Mullins, but Hall remained optimistic. “I’ve been around politics long enough to know not to panic,” he says. The tide never turned, however. As each batch of poll results came through, Mullins remained in the lead. Hall noticed something else happening, too. All around the state, Republicans were beating their Democrat opponents.

He watched as the Associated Press called the 3rd Congressional District race for Jenkins. In Kanawha County, Delegate Doug Skaff—who was running for a seat in the state Senate—lost to political newcomer Tom Takubo. By the end of the night, Mullins would beat Green with nearly 57 percent of the vote. “All around the state, you’re talking about a complete swing,” Hall says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

Soon, Hall got a text from Republican Senator Dave Sypolt, of Preston County. “He said, ‘You always said if it ever got close, you’d consider switching. I think 17-17 is pretty close.’” Sypolt was right; Hall had said that. In 2006 Hall ran for the House of Delegates in Raleigh County as a Republican, only to lose in the primaries. He thought he was finished with politics, got married and moved to Wyoming County, where he registered as a Democrat. “I changed parties just so I could vote,” he says. Like many places in the West Virginia coalfields, Democrats had such tight control of Wyoming County, the outcome of many local races was decided in primary elections. In general elections, Democrats either ran unopposed or faced very weak challengers.

Of course, Hall’s political career was far from over. In 2008 the newly minted Democrat ran for, and won, a seat in the House. After serving two terms in the lower chamber, he made a successful bid for the state Senate in 2012. From that time on, Hall says Republicans tried to court him back. “I said, ‘Guys, why would I join the minority party?’” Now things had changed. Hall tapped out a two-word message to Sypolt: “Let’s talk.”

The morning after the election, Hall had to be in Huntington for his day job with Frontier Communications. At some point that morning he found out Cole, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, and several other Senate Republicans had already convened at the Capitol. So as he was driving back to Charleston, following the same route Cole had taken the night before, Hall called up Carmichael to begin negotiating the terms of his defection.

Hall stopped at the Capitol that afternoon for face-to-face meetings with Cole and Carmichael. “I did make one demand that was turned down,” he says. Hall wanted to be the Senate Finance Committee chairman, but was informed former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, of Putnam County, was taking that job. The leadership team instead offered Daniel Hall the position of Senate Majority Whip. He accepted. “Let’s be honest, we’re playing poker,” he says.

That afternoon Hall walked to the Secretary of State’s office on the Capitol’s first floor and switched his party affiliation. “We were going to wait until the next morning, and they said, ‘Let’s just go do it now.’ Some of them were nervous I would back out,” Hall says. “I said, ‘Fine, lets go.’” He waited until almost 5 p.m., hoping he could sneak in and do the paperwork without anyone noticing. “Somebody in the office tweeted it out and within a little bit it was viral,” he says. Reporters jumped on the story and, within the hour, the news was all over the state: The GOP had successfully taken control of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.

He wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain the decision. “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate,” he wrote. “I have always picked our people over party … and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”

His constituents largely did not mind the switch—“If I can deliver, they’re not going to care,” Hall says—but his decision did upset some members of his former caucus. “Overall it’s been great. A few of them will never get over it.” It’s easy to understand why. With one swipe of a pen, Hall cast Democrats into a role they had never played under the current Capitol building’s big gold dome. Suddenly, historically, they were the minority party.

The Wave

The change in leadership at the statehouse has been described as a “Republican wave,” but the phenomenon is more akin to a volcanic eruption than a tsunami. The signs were there if you paid attention. For instance, West Virginia has been trending red in national elections for some time. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Voters in the state’s 1st congressional district elected Representative David McKinley in 2010, making him the first Republican to serve that district since Arch Moore left the seat to become governor in 1969. Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, remained vastly popular in the 2nd congressional district since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. And while Rahall was able to keep his seat through several fiercely contested races, in recent years his margin of victory over Republican challengers shrank with every election.

As Republicans made inroads on the federal level, voters began electing more Republicans in state races, too. The GOP has steadily gained seats in the House of Delegates since 2006. In 2012 voters picked Republican candidate Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

This rising swell of Republican support joined with several other factors in 2014 to pave the way for a leadership change in the statehouse. First, President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, which turned many voters against state Democrats, too. Republican voters also were motivated to get out to the polls, thanks to several high-profile races at the top of the general election ballot: Capito was running for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Jenkins was running against Rahall, Alex Mooney was vying for Capito’s old House of Representatives seat, and McKinley was up for reelection.

Jason Crowder, a Cole staffer who first moved to West Virginia to help run his boss’s 2012 state Senate campaign, says Republicans also managed to out-campaign Democrats. Crowder says the GOP worked hard to recruit a slate of top-notch candidates, then used data on voter registration and voter turnout trends to target areas where their message would be most effective. “Like anything, it’s planning and execution,” he says.

Although there was some sense the House of Delegates might flip in the 2014 election, not many people believed the state Senate would follow suit. But about two weeks before Election Day, Crowder began handicapping Democrat and Republican campaigns. It became clear the GOP had a real shot at taking control of both chambers. “If you look at it district by district, it tells a different story,” he says.

Take, for instance, the sixth state Senate district. State Senator Truman Chafin had represented the district since 1982, so no one expected much when political newcomer Mark Maynard signed up to face him in November’s election. Maynard didn’t even raise money for his campaign. According to the Associated Press, he just spent some money out of his pocket to have pamphlets printed, and someone donated $350 in yard signs to his campaign. Yet, to the shock of many, Maynard eked out a victory over Chafin, taking the seat by fewer than 400 votes.

Crowder wasn’t surprised, however. He says Chafin’s district was redrawn in 2011 to include new sections of Mercer County, where voters did not have a strong historical connection to the longtime lawmaker. Maynard also had a geographical advantage because he lived in Wayne County. “So many people vote addresses in West Virginia,” Crowder says. Maynard also had another advantage Chafin did not—the “R” beside his name on the ballot. Crowder says Chafin, like many Democrats across the state, did not think Republicans would put up such a strong fight. They dismissed their opponents, at their own peril. “They didn’t expect it. It’s easier to do when people think it’s impossible,” he says.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler agrees. He says his party did not see the Republican wave coming—although he’s not sure Republicans did, either. “Politics are volatile. Nobody’s backside is welded to any of these seats,” he says. Kessler admits Democrats are partly to blame for their losses, however. Instead of touting their accomplishments—like repealing the state’s food and business franchise taxes, privatizing worker’s compensation, tackling the state’s mounting pension debts, and expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 previously uninsured state residents—Democrats chose instead to let their challengers control the conversation. “We were so unwilling to call ourselves Democrats because of the association with federal Democrats we stood back, kept our mouths shut, wrung our hands and hoped our two-to-one (voter registration) average played out,” he says. “We did a terrible job of giving the electorate a reason to rehire us.”

Playing Defense

While he’s not happy with the outcome of the election, Kessler says Democrats still have an important role to play in the Legislature. They no longer have the privilege of setting the Legislature’s agenda, but they still can work to influence the agenda set by Republicans.

That’s probably easier done in the Senate, however, where the majority hangs on one vote. Democrats in the House of Delegates have a bit more working against them. “It’s much harder to play defense when one team has a lot more people on the field,” says Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin. Pushkin was one of the few first-time Democrat lawmakers elected last year, so he has no idea what it was like to serve in the majority party. But he says many Democrat lawmakers have found the change in leadership frustrating. “There’s a lot of people who have served for a long time, and they’ve won every battle they’ve fought for years. That’s not happening now,” he says.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley’s frustration is palpable. “We have … very little, if any, influence on what gets on agendas,” he says. Democrats have managed to amend some bills, but nothing that diverts too dramatically from the Republican leadership’s original intentions. “The working relationship has been very cordial, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a whole lot of compromise,” he says. “I believe it was different in the past … but that’s politics. When you have a new majority with a new ideology, they don’t have to compromise.” Miley, who served as speaker of the House during the Democrats’ last session as the majority party, says he is concerned the Legislature will make lots of concessions for corporate interests, but do little to help average citizens. “There’s very little that’s going to be done to help individual families in West Virginia,” he says.

Newly elected House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, does not share his predecessor’s sentiments. “I really believe the voters have called for change, and we’re giving them change,” he says. “So many of the things we’ve tried to do for years, we’re finally able to get them on the agenda.” The party wasted no time getting to work. Within days of the new session’s start, the Republicans were running bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, establish charter schools, abolish straight-ticket voting, create alternative certification requirements for teachers, establish nonpartisan elections for judges, repeal prevailing wage requirements for state construction projects, audit the state Department of Highways, and reinstate a section of code protecting private property owners from lawsuits if dangers on their property are “open and obvious,” among other things.

Democrats, for the most part, only succeeded in making piecemeal changes to legislation. But the party was not without its victories. Senate Democrats convinced two of their Republican colleagues—Hall and Sen. Chris Walters—to side with the minority and defeat a bill that would limit cash awards in civil lawsuits. Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also were able to convince their GOP colleagues to table a bill requiring photo identification at voting booths. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County, successfully amended a revenue bill to divert about $1.5 million annually from the state lottery fund for “veteran-related projects.”

Democrats have also joined their Republican colleagues to support many pieces of legislation, including a repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The law, originally passed in 2009, would have required state power plants to begin using more alternative fuels, including clean coal technologies. Republicans decried the legislation as a “cap and trade” law, saying it would hurt the state’s coal industry and raise families’ utility bills. Some Democrats argued the bill wouldn’t do anything at all, except maybe give the impression West Virginia is not interested in alternative energies. Republican lawmakers pushed the bill forward, however, and it eventually passed the House on a 95-4 vote and the Senate with a unanimous vote. It was the first bill to land on the governor’s desk in the 2015 legislative session.

“There’s an energy here you’ve never seen before,” Armstead says. “Our goal was to be running legislation in the first week. There is a natural procrastination to the legislative process. Our view is, we have 60 days to make significant changes and we don’t want to waste any of those days.” During his 16 years in the minority party, Armstead says the 60-day session seemed to stretch on forever. It seems to go much faster now that his caucus is running the show.

Armstead is the first Republican Speaker of the House to serve in the marbled halls of the current West Virginia Capitol building. Cass Gilbert’s grand statehouse did not open its doors until June 1932, just six months after Republicans ceded control of the Legislature.

Armstead says he tries not to think about his place in West Virginia history, but it sometimes creeps up on him. It usually happens when he’s standing behind his podium at the front of the House chamber. He remembers, early in the session, watching as members debated nonpartisan elections for judges. Republicans have supported the idea for years but never had any success getting it through the legislative process. “It just hit me—we are on the floors of this house, discussing this issue,” Armstead says. “I want the people of West Virginia to look back at 2015 and say, ‘That’s when we changed the direction of our state.’”

Too Soon to Tell

Despite those 83 years wandering in the wilderness of political obscurity, Republicans once had a long, successful run in West Virginia politics. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Republicans dominated the West Virginia Legislature for the first eight years of the state’s existence. And though Democrats would gain control in the early 1870s, the GOP again rose to prominence following the election of 1896.

“We were a progressive state, as progressive as any around us,” says West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton. The demand for coal was growing by leaps and bounds, especially after competition from European coal markets dwindled after World War I. That boded well for West Virginia’s economy, as well as Republicans’ pro-business policies. “We became the world’s number one industrial nation, and coal was powering that industry,” Peyton says.

But toward the mid-1920s, European economies began to rebound. It was good news for the global economy, but bad for West Virginia coal mines. “Our production dropped because demand decreased. The price of coal went down, wages went down, miners went out of work,” Peyton says. Although the Great Depression was still years away, the state’s economy began to slip—taking with it Republicans’ foothold in the statehouse. “It’s the party in charge that gets the blame, even if they’re not responsible,” Peyton says. “The Republican Party was the face of the collapse.” The West Virginia House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control after the election of 1930, when voters added 37 Democrats to the lower chamber, giving the party a 68-26 majority.

The transformation was complete in 1932. Voters nationwide went looking for change and found it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal.” The Democrats’ sweep in Washington was matched in West Virginia with the election of 22 more Democratic lawmakers, giving the party a 24-6 majority in the state Senate and a 79-15 majority in the House. Voters also elected Governor Herman Kump, the second Democratic chief executive in 40 years.

It would be more than 80 years before the floodwaters would recede. At times, Republican numbers in the House of Delegates got so small the entire caucus could fit in a family sedan.

The parallels are evident. Just like the 1930s, we have the combination of a flagging coal market, voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and a contentious national political climate creating a surge that carried the minority party into power. What remains to be seen, Peyton says, is whether it will last this time. “As a historian, it’s years before you can assess change. It’s too early to tell right now,” he says. “Everybody’s talking about change, but until we see what the results are, you might as well just throw up a coin and see how it lands.”

The farmer makes a run

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Aug. 28, 2012.

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.

But Leonhardt is worried about what would happen if a crisis were more widespread. West Virginia received help from outside the state after the derecho hit, but those resources might not be available in a larger event.

Leonhardt said increasing the number of farmers in the state would give West Virginia access to a larger in-state food supply.

It’s a safety issue, too. He said the longer food travels before it gets to the dinner table, the greater chance it will be contaminated.

“We need to shorten the distance from producer to consumer,” he said.

Leonhardt figures the state could increase the number of farmers with a four-point approach: educate would-be farmers about opportunities in agriculture, provide them with business models, offer low-cost loans to get started and help market their products.

“The farmers will grow a product if they have a market,” he said.

Leonhardt got into farming because he’s always been interested in animals. His father, a general practice physician in Floren Park, N.J, was a hunter and fisherman and helped his son develop a love of the outdoors.

Leonhardt attended the University of Missouri, where he majored in wildlife management and pre-veterinary studies. He finished that degree but then decided to enlist in the military, realizing returning Vietnam veterans were getting most of the state and federal jobs.

“The only wildlife I ever managed was Marines,” he now jokes.

Still, his interest in animals endured. Despite a complete lack of farming experience, Leonhardt and his wife, Shirley, bought their Monongalia County farm in 1982 while he was still on active duty.

The property had been abandoned since 1957. The fields were overgrown and the house, now beautifully restored, was used to store hay.

Kent and Shirley visited occasionally to clean up the place, often camping in their unfinished home. They moved onto the property full time in 1996, finished fixing up the house and started their farm.

“Most of this is self-taught,” Leonhardt said as he led a tour of his property.

He opened a gate and started across the pasture, a plastic bucket of corn in his right hand.

“Here sheep! C’mon sheep.”

Leonhardt shook the bucket and the animals came running, anticipating a snack.

The cows, goats and sheep are kept in separate paddocks but are rotated regularly because cows will eat weeds that sheep won’t, and sheep will eat weeds that goats don’t, and goats will eat grass and weeds that cows and sheep avoid.

Rotating the animals also helps reduce parasite infections, because cows and goats are not affected by the same bugs that affect sheep.

The farm doesn’t grow any crops except hay, but Leonhardt used to have a large garden where he grew vegetables. The garden is mostly empty this year, however, because the campaign has kept him away from home.

Leonhardt figures he will have to reduce his operation even further if he wins the race.

He would have to work in Charleston during the week so farming would be limited to the weekends. He and Shirley would have to sell some of their livestock to make the herd more manageable. They might have to hire some help, too.

“I’m not going to get rich off of this,” he said, walking back to the house after giving the goats their own bucket of corn.

But that wasn’t ever the plan. Leonhardt said his parents raised him to believe everyone should give their best to help others. That’s another reason he joined the Marines, and why he decided to run for agriculture commissioner.

“I felt I had the knowledge and the experience to do the job,” he said. “The farmer has done it from the ground up. The veteran has led men and women in peace and war and has worked in crises.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s a choice.”

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

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Walt Helmick: the water farmer

This story was originally published May 23, 2012 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

MINNEHAHA SPRINGS – High on a Pocahontas County ridge, a natural spring spits out 20 gallons of water each minute.

It runs down the mountain through a mile of pipe, supplying water to five cottages and a wood-fired hot tub, before making its final stop: state Sen. Walt Helmick’s pocket.

The man knows how to balance a budget. When Helmick and his wife bought their 200-acre property a decade ago, he wanted to make sure the investment would pay for itself. So he turned the property’s natural spring into a business, Allegheny Lodge Enterprises.

The plant now produces about 5,000 bottles of spring water daily, five days a week, and employs one full-time and one part-time worker. Helmick admits it’s an incredibly small operation (“Coke probably does that in two minutes”), but the plant is doing well.

Allegheny Lodge Enterprises sells its house brand, “Minnehaha Mist,” to grocery stores and produces custom-labeled water for hospitals, schools, insurance companies, tourism companies, athletic teams and churches.

The company has sold water to Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, the state Treasurer’s Office, The Coal Heritage Highway Authority, Charleston Area Medical Center, Allegheny Insurance in Elkins and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.

The plant also produces one-gallon jugs of water that are sold at grocery stores and five-gallon jugs for use in water fountains.

Helmick keeps a close eye on his costs. He makes all the deliveries for the company, usually in a big single-axle Freightliner. He also can recite, by heart, where each penny of his operation goes.

It costs a penny to haul each 16-ounce bottle from Georgia to the bottling plant. Plastic caps are 2 cents each. Labels cost 4 cents, and Helmick’s hired help costs about 3 cents per bottle.

He loses one and a half cents for depreciation on his equipment. Insurance premiums take half a penny.

Helmick, by the way, is a former longtime chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee.

“If you’re going to buy the place, it’s got to pay for itself,” he said.

His unconventional business plan has drawn fire from political opponents in the last few months.

Helmick remains in the state Senate but is running for state agriculture commissioner.

State law dictates that the commissioner must be “a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture, and shall have made agriculture his chief business for a period of 10 years immediately preceding his election.”

While Helmick insists his water bottling operation is a type of agriculture, his opponents don’t agree.

In a YouTube video posted last month, the West Virginia Young Republicans call Helmick a “fake farmer” and allege he doesn’t own a truck. (He actually owns four trucks, including the aforementioned Freightliner and a retired state road pickup he uses on his property.

The group’s website also features a poster reminiscent of the “HOPE” and “CHANGE” posters from President Obama’s 2008 campaign. This poster features Helmick’s portrait and the words “FAKE FARMER.”

His opponents in the Democrat primary also took shots at his agricultural background.

Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Steve Miller’s television commercial ended with the tagline “Steve Miller, a farmer for Agriculture Commissioner.” The announcer emphasized “farmer.”

Helmick’s Republican challenger, retired Marine and cattle farmer Kent Leonhardt, says he plans to continue challenging Helmick’s eligibility in the general election.

Helmick actually plans to use profits from his bottling operation to start a livestock operation . . . but that business plan also is out of the ordinary.

His bottling company was named after a lodge that once stood on the property. The four-story, 16-room lodge was built in 1913 and was a popular recreation spot for years. It burned to the ground in 1983, and the site is now an empty field.

There are already five cottages on the property, including one he uses as his Pocahontas County residence, but he plans to use profits from the water bottling plant to rebuild the lodge.

He already has the blueprints. Helmick worked with students from his alma mater, West Virginia University Institute of Technology, to draw up plans for the lodge based on the old pictures.

Helmick keeps photos from the lodge’s heyday in his desk at the bottling plant.

“I have a goal to see that again someday,” he said.

One of the old pictures shows elk grazing under trees in the lodge’s side yard. Helmick wants to bring the animals back, too.

The elk, which originally came to West Virginia by train from Yellowstone National Park, were set loose into the surrounding woods when the lodge burned. They made their way to neighboring farms, where farmers shot them.

Helmick says he is still trying to decide whether he wants to bring deer or elk onto the property. He said he wouldn’t allow hunting but plans to sell the animals’ meat to keep populations in check.

Helmick said he hopes to have deer or elk on the land by the end of the year. There’s still a lot of work to do, however. State law requires cervid, or deer, farms to erect a 6-foot fence around the whole property to keep wild deer from mingling with farmers’ herds.

Helmick already has fenced about 30 acres, but he needs to put up a layer of woven fencing in addition to the existing post-and-wire fence. He doesn’t seem daunted by the task.

“I’m a worker. I have no intention of ever retiring. I have so much to do,” he said.

There’s really only one thing holding Helmick back from rebuilding the lodge and starting his deer farm: his other job.

“I’m addicted to the political life. We all have our shortcomings,” the longtime senator said.

When the Legislature is in session, Helmick doesn’t get to spend much time in Pocahontas County. He lives in his Charleston residence during that time.

He also has spent the last several months running his first statewide campaign, seeking the Democrat nomination for agriculture commissioner. He won that bid earlier this month, but “Walt Helmick for Commissioner of Agriculture” signs still lean against a wall inside the plant. A “We Want Walt” campaign water bottle sits on his kitchen counter.

His workload could get much heavier in the next few months. Helmick said he plans to take the state agriculture department “to another level” if he wins the commission race this November.

“We’ve got to promote our products in West Virginia. I think there’s potential for this stuff. You can see what we’ve done with it,” he said.

“This is what West Virginia needs.”