West Virginia lawmakers pass first farm bill for the state

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A rural road in West Virginia.
A rural road in West Virginia. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

The West Virginia legislature passed the state’s first-ever farm bill April 6. The bill, which will renew annually, sets the stage for easier updates and revisions to state code related to agriculture.

“Our goal is to work towards updating chapter 19 code to modernize rules and regulations and reduce burdens on West Virginia farmers. In addition, we want to further develop ways to grow our agricultural economy in West Virginia,” said Kent Leonhardt, commissioner of agriculture, in an April 6 statement.

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture has worked towards a recurring farm bill for years. West Virginia has a part time legislature and only 60 days each year to get things done, said Jennifer Greenlief, assistant commissioner and general counsel for the department.

“Inevitably, there is a crunch when it comes to getting legislation across,” Greenlief said.

It can be difficult to get work done on agricultural issues, especially less exciting issues like updating laws and making tweaks to code. So, the department wanted to put agricultural updates into one bill and present it as a package. The pandemic provided that opportunity. The 2021 bill updates multiple sections of code, and introduces an agriculture investment program.

“It helps, ’cause we’re not having to fight for 17 bills to get everything done,” Greenlief said. “It’s an opportunity to take a chunk, a bite of the elephant, every year.”

Investment

The bill, House Bill 2633, creates an Agriculture Investment Program, but doesn’t include funding for the program, yet.

“Given the budget year we were in, we wanted to plant the seed this year … and make the case next year that the legislature needed to provide support for these programs,” Greenlief said.

Greenlief isn’t sure yet how much funding the department is hoping to see for the program. Amounts suggested by surveys range from a couple million to over $100 million.

The program aims to bring more agriculture-based businesses into the state, and help the ones already there to expand. It would provide loans or grants to agricultural businesses, since some traditional loan programs aren’t familiar with ag businesses and don’t have methods to properly evaluate their risks and needs. Funds could also be used to support things like feasibility studies.

Personnel

The bill removes a requirement that the commissioner of agriculture be a farmer, since a West Virginia court found in 2012 that the requirement was unconstitutional, Greenlief said. The state constitution already sets out qualifications for state officers and the provision was an additional requirement that the court found invalid.

“From a legal perspective, it’s the right thing to clean up code,” Greenlief said.

The bill adds law enforcement officers to the Livestock Care Standards Board, and gives law enforcement the option to ask the department of agriculture for expert opinions on cases related to livestock care. The board’s purpose is to provide standards of livestock care to help educate people, who are less familiar with agriculture.

Law enforcement handles animal cruelty prosecutions, and the department found there was a break down in communication between the board setting standards, and law enforcement knowing the standards and how to apply them.

“The fact that they were not on the board meant they couldn’t give advice on how to phrase things in a way so law enforcement could understand it, and were not aware of the standards to use when they receive those complaints,” Greenlief said.

Permitting

Changes to farmers markets included establishing that vendors at farmers markets only need to be permitted and inspected by the department of agriculture. In the past, some vendors had to be inspected by the department, and by local health departments.

“Part of the goal is to say, if you’re already being inspected once by the state, you don’t need to be inspected twice,” Greenlief said.

Updates also remove phrases like cottage food and homemade food and replace them with either “potentially hazardous” food, which could potentially be contaminated or made unsafe during processing by things like cutting the food, or not refrigerating it properly, or “non-potentially hazardous” food, which is anything that isn’t potentially hazardous.

For example, a head of lettuce picked and sold as-is would be non-potentially hazardous. A pie with a meringue, which needs to be refrigerated, would be potentially hazardous. Since terms like “homemade” or “cottage food” aren’t defined in the code, the department believes this change will make the code clearer.

The bill also removes a $5 fee for a permit to feed garbage to swine. The permit doesn’t apply to anyone feeding swine for their own personal use, and the department looked at getting rid of the permit altogether — there are only about 10 people using it, and it costs more than $5 to process the fees.

But the federal government requires permitting for that. So instead, the state kept the permit and got rid of the fee.

“It actually saves our department money to not collect the fee,” Greenlief said. “It’s a little thing, but it’s a nice little perk.”

Other updates

The bill makes adjustments to West Virginia’s Fresh Food Act, which requires state agencies to purchase 5% of their food from within the state, to include more types of agricultural products, like milk and value-added products. The original law only addressed meat, poultry and produce.

The bill also allows raw milk to be sold for non-human consumption, updates commercial feed law and clarifies that soil conservation districts have the authority to address water quality issues.

“We’ve been engaging in that work,” Greenlief said. “The state conservation committee wanted these changes to make sure they can continue doing the work to address water quality issues in the state.”

For next year, the department is already looking at consolidating some repetitive sections of dairy laws and adjusting out-of-date code.

“We’re trying to clean up and get things so the code is easy to understand and apply, so people don’t get stuck,” she said.

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