MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The state Department of Agriculture is working to increase food production, maintain forests and waters and create jobs.

Kent Leonhardt

State Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said they have used abandoned mine lands in many cases to establish businesses like Buzz Foods in Charleston. The company operates the Appalachian Abattoir, distributing locally produced meats to area consumers.

Also, Appalachian Botanicals produces a wide range of lavender-based products made by West Virginians and grown on abandoned mine lands.

“The largest lavender farm is east of the Mississippi River, and part of that is on abandoned mine lands as well, and these are all agriculture businesses,” Leonhardt said last Friday on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Morgantown-based Mountaintop Beverage, a maker of shelf-stable dairy products, moved into a 330,000-square-foot facility last year that currently employs more than 200 people. CEO Jeff Sokal said the location for the facility is ideal with access to markets and raw products, but the workforce has been extremely productive.

“There are really good business reasons in terms of logistics for the types of products we produce, but really it’s the people,” Sokal said. “We’ve got a fantastic team of people.”

For Leonhardt, this is a type of business that can sustain farms and industry while providing a wage to raise a family and a tax base for the state and local community.

“Manufacturing in the agricultural world is actually a recession-proof business,” Leonhardt said. “This economy we’re in has been pretty great, but we know it’s not sustainable. But these businesses that the West Virginia Department of Agriculture has been working on since I’ve been there have been producing recession-proof jobs.”

Jeff Sokal

Starting up a manufacturing facility with state-of-the-art aseptic equipment is no easy task. According to Sokul, the local workforce has taken ownership of the work and has made the start-up a relatively smooth process.

“We have a level of talent here we have not seen in other places. People are as dedicated to what we’re doing as we are,” Sokal said. “Providing careers for these folks and not just jobs is important.”

The arrival of Mountaintop Beverage at the Morgantown Industrial Park is also gaining attention from outside the state.

Part of the agreement to bring the company to the park was to add access from I-79 at Harmony Grove to remove truck traffic from surface streets in Westover. When the project got bogged down in federal red tape, the state stepped in to fund a new crossing over the Monongahela River for interim access until an interstate exit was constructed. The new access is expected to be complete by 2027.

“That upper part of the industrial park has opened up because of our project, with the exit coming and the bridge coming,” Sokal said. “There are several other businesses of large size that are looking to locate in that industrial park; we’re going to have to start creating more employees.”