MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass said Tuesday he won't seek re-election in 2012, clearing the way for others in his agency and in the industry to test their own potential candidacies.
Douglass made the announcement at the Capitol in Charleston a day after informing his staff.
The 84-year-old Democrat has been elected 11 times and is the nation's longest-serving agriculture commissioner. He served six terms between 1964 and 1984, and he's won five more terms since 1992.
"I'm afraid I might have worn the voters out," he joked about his reason for retiring. "After 11 terms, that's 44 years."
Douglass said both he and his wife are in relatively good health, but the commute from his Mason County farm has become harder with age, and he's ready to step aside for a new generation of leadership.
Three people within the department have expressed an interest in the position, he said, "so I think it's only fair I get out of the way so they can get out and see what they can develop."
While Douglass expects many contenders to emerge, he notes the statutory requirements that the commissioner be "a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture" and one who has made agriculture his principal business.
The Mason County farmer was recruited to the department as an assistant commissioner by then-Commissioner John T. Johnson in 1957. As commissioner himself, he was out of office for just four years, after running an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1988.
Douglass last ran in 2008, touting achievements that included the creation of meat inspection, food safety and animal health programs. He also pushed for technology and security measures such as a mobile lab able to identify dangerous viruses in hours rather than weeks.
Douglass, who runs a 540-acre beef cattle and hay farm with son Tom, said he never dreamed of such a career.
"Even after being elected, I never expected to be in this office as long as I have," he said. "It just always seemed as though there was something more that needed to be accomplished."
In his last term, he's won funding from legislators for a cold storage facility near Ripley that serves as a warehouse for food that goes to West Virginia's schools and the state's donated foods program. But he envisions a broader use — disaster preparation.
"In the back of my mind, I'm aware of what can happen if commerce is disrupted or we have some emergency here, and we do not have a food supply or a water supply," he said. "Look at what happened in Japan. ... They were not prepared."
The warehouse, he said, could provide space for as many as 200,000 cases of nonperishable food that could be distributed in an emergency "so we can look after ourselves until help can come," he said. "Most people don't realize there's less than a seven-day supply of food in any West Virginia city."
Douglass has served as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
He was chairman of the Southern Regional Committee for Food and Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter, and he's twice served as president of the Southern United States Trade Association.
He's repeatedly testified before Congress on farming issues, and he chaired the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases an unprecedented four times.
Douglass is also the only West Virginian ever elected national president of the Future Farmers of America and presided over the first national FFA conference following World War II.
Douglass said he's considering several projects, including a book about his experience with West Virginia's governors. It's largely dictated already, he said, "and I'd probably like to see that through."
However, "we don't want to publish that as long as I'm living," he said.
Each governor "had their mannerisms" and each was focused on specific goals, Douglass said, but they missed many opportunities.
For example, he said, an idea he pitched in his gubernatorial campaign about using earth from mountaintop removal coal mining projects to build highways and other infrastructure is only now taking root in southern West Virginia.