Heading into the 2021 legislative session, we were unsure how much time would available for policy making here in West Virginia. Over the last year, Covid-19 had brought the state to a halt limiting our lawmakers’ ability to meet. This created a scenario with limited access, as well as added urgency to move bills quickly to avoid a potential outbreak. Despite those worries, the Senate and House met for 60 days bringing necessary changes to better West Virginia. That included many new initiatives that will help grow our most important economic sector, agriculture. The list is too long for this piece, but we want to cover a few highlights important to the growth of agriculture in West Virginia.
House Bill 2823 clarifies that buildings or structures utilized primarily for agricultural purposes shall be exempt from the provisions of the State Building Code, the State Fire Code and any county or municipal property or maintenance code or ordinance. This is in line with changes we made in recent years to exempt structures used for agritourism purposes. Since agriculture structures are unique in nature, it does not make sense to hold them to the same standards as other buildings. Combine this change with Senate Bill 160, which states high tunnels are non-taxable structures, we have lifted burdensome fees and taxes from our producers. Both efforts will help farmers who wish to expand their operations or utilize structures on their farms.
One positive thing to grow out of lifted restrictions on alcohol during the pandemic was House Bill 2025. The legislation does numerous things to help restaurants, breweries and distillers start up or expand in the Mountain State by either reducing regulations or allowing new services. For the WVDA, it separates cider from wine and lowers the fees on those products. It also creates an “Agriculture Development Fund” with the goal to develop agriculture sectors in the state, and specifically a program to develop fruit inputs for the cider industry. Taxes on hard cider are deposited in this fund to help this effort.
The Department’s packaged legislative priorities House Bill 2633, also known as the West Virginia Farm Bill, updates and modernizes many sections of state law pertaining to agriculture. In every sense, it either reduces regulations or brings those rules into the 21st century. One of the most important updates is removing local health departments from the regulation of farmers’ market vendors. Now the WVDA will be the sole entity regulating vendors at these markets which will streamline guidelines and help producers who want to enter or expand into these markets. Combine this with Senate Bill 12 which creates an appeal process for adverse determinations by local health departments overseen by the Bureau of Public Health, we have made great leaps for our small producers.
Since taking office, we have continued to elevate agriculture policy in West Virginia by having staff comb through Chapter 19 to find ways to make it easier on the farmers in the Mountain State. Many of these rules and regulations had not been touched in decades and were in desperate need of modernization. We then took these changes to our Senators and Delegates who made it a priority to fix these issues which has been vital to our effort to find avenues to attract new workers and businesses. All it takes is a government willing to allow free market principles flourish by reducing regulations or creating more programs to aid businesses development.
Despite everything we have accomplished, there is much more work to do. Here at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, we will continue those efforts by using an “educate before regulate” mentality.
Kent A. Leonhardt is the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture.