When the national food system screeched to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, the demand for food soared and presented a unique opportunity for local agriculture.
That opportunity was only possible due to the hoarding of supplies, restaurant closings, and outbreaks in large-scale processing that resulted in normal goods being inaccessible to large grocery chains.
To find the food they needed, consumers were forced to turn to local producers or processors to fill in the gaps.
Fortunately, our local farmers have risen to this challenge, building better relationships with consumers and showing the importance of local farming to our wellbeing.
With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, the next growing season will determine whether we have learned our lessons from the past or whether consumers will return to large-scale farming.
There is plenty of evidence that local farming is thriving in Mountain State. Since the West Virginia Department of Agriculture took over regulation of farmers’ markets, those markets have doubled.
This has been achieved by reducing onerous regulations to open up new ways for manufacturers to sell their products.
The other half of the equation is that more and more consumers want to get to know their farmer. These customers appreciate knowing how someone develops or grows their product and where exactly it comes from.
It is this commitment that can really help our communities experience economic growth and build resilience in the event of future pandemics.
Another growth indicator is the boom in local meat production. In the past year, meat processing has increased by 200% and slaughter of cattle has increased by 41%.
Most processors tell their customers that they are well booked for the next year. This increased demand is a direct result of the lack of products that we have seen in our grocery chains.
For this trend to continue, habits need to change, but we also need to increase production, either by expanding existing plants or by allowing new plants to break into nooks in the market.
What it takes is the repeal of some federal regulations as well as local investment. The new Buzz Foods facility in Kanawha County is a perfect example of an opportunity to expand our livestock industry and provide better access to local meat. We need to replicate their model across the state.
Unfortunately, not all agribusiness flourished during the pandemic, and with June being National Dairy Month, this is a perfect time to highlight and support West Virginia’s activities.
A lack of increased demand is nothing new for US dairy products as consumption has stabilized over the past few decades. At the same time, technology has brought efficiency gains to the industry as fewer cows are needed to maintain production levels.
The solution is innovation, either by creating micro-distilleries or by upgrading the liquid milk with products such as cheese. Both avenues take away from us, the consumers, the obligation to support these innovations, as well as the repeal of government regulations to encourage innovation.
By allowing these companies to adapt, they can penetrate new demand gaps and allow these local businesses to survive.
If you haven’t got the message I’m trying to get across, it’s simply that local farming systems are vital not only to our economy, but also to the health of our citizens and the ability of the state to deal with a pandemic .
We support these farmers by reducing regulations, opening up new market opportunities, helping them adopt innovations and, most importantly, helping them with consumer demand.
So this summer I call on all West Virginians to thank those who fed us when the national food systems collapsed last year.
During the milk month, get to know your local dairy farmer and visit your community’s farmers’ market. Understand why these hard working people chose this career path, how they make their product, and why it’s important to our communities.
Hop off and support a local producer because local farming is vital to West Virginia’s future.
Kent A. Leonhardt is the West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner.