By Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture
Attention farmers, producers and home gardeners! As we set in motion our spring planting, we call on you to do your part to grow West Virginia’s food resiliency by planting extra rows this year. Supply chain issues, inflation, the pandemic and the War in Ukraine have shown us the importance of creating an independent U.S. within the world market. History tells us that famine typically follows a pandemic and I fear, just like our energy sector, continued reliance on foreign nations for food will have dire consequences. We already have experienced what this could look like when prices and food scarcity skyrocketed during the beginning of the pandemic. We survived by shifting our focus towards local agriculture which led to all-time records for local food sales and meat processing. As we look for ways to foster growth through local agriculture, I am asking all producers to consider planting an extra row of something, anything commonly consumed in West Virginia.
As we saw production shift due to the pandemic, it became vital we not only support local producers but encourage average citizens to grow their own food. The strains on the food system we experienced in the early part of the pandemic were due to the closure of restaurants. Without these businesses, 30% of food we consumed in the United States was taken out of the marketplace. As restaurants closed their doors, processing facilities had to focus on direct consumer production, increasing more strain on our grocers. These types of shifts do not occur overnight which caused a lag behind the increased grocery shopping. We are seeing the trend reverse as we shift back to our pre-pandemic lifestyles. Now inflation, supply chain issues and the rising cost of gas plague the U.S. economy.
Increased gas prices will accelerate consumer prices beyond what we are already seeing. Fuel is one of the most expensive inputs for many of our industrial sectors, including agriculture. Increased fuel prices also have been one of the causes of the trucker driver shortage. The pain the average consumer is seeing at the gas pump has much more serious downward ramifications in our food chains. Increased energy prices mean more expensive fertilizer which will reduce food production here and abroad. This will undoubtedly result in lower yields and, therefore, less food. For beef farmers this means less hay available which leads to fewer animals wintered and possibly younger and smaller animals sent to market. Less truckers, more expensive fuel and fertilizer and less production will put a damper on the national food system.
Now with the war in Ukraine, we can predict the breadbasket of Eastern Europe will not be able to produce exports as they have done in the past. This will likely put more pressure on food prices and increase shortages on a world scale. If these conflicts continue, the United States will be asked to provide foreign aid which will include food. My military training has drilled into me the need to prepare for unforeseen circumstances. Foreign conflicts, pandemics and other emergencies are those scenarios. If we do not prepare, it will be our citizens who feel the pain.
As your Commissioner of Agriculture, I have advocated for investing in local foods since I took office five years ago; this includes branding programs such as West Virginia Grown, investments into infrastructure, as well as workforce programs. We must do more to support the 23,000 farmers in the Mountain State and the $800 million worth of commodities they produce. The gap between local production and consumption continue to widen with no indication it will slow down. Relying on national and foreign food systems is not the future of our state. If we hope to make our state and economies as resilient as possible, we must invest inward. If our leaders will not act, I ask the citizens to do their part by planting an extra row this year. Your families, friends, neighbors and local food banks will appreciate your efforts.