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.”
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