Teen Runs for Agriculture Post in W.Va.

Andrew Yost (search) is a year and a half out of high school — a teenager who juggles part-time farm work with a full load of college courses. Gus Douglass (search) is old enough to be his grandfather — a gray-haired political veteran who was first elected when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

But the two have one thing in common: They are running for agriculture commissioner of West Virginia. Yost, 19, is the Republican longshot Nov. 2 against Douglass, 77, a Democrat seeking a record 10th term.

The race is the ultimate study in contrast, pitting youthful idealism and enthusiasm against decades of hands-on experience.

Yost voted for the first time in May, when he won the Republican primary. Douglass was in the middle of his sixth term when Yost was still in diapers.

In campaign photos, Yost wears a blue corduroy jacket that proclaims him a Future Farmer of America. Douglass runs a 540-acre farm with his son, and is a past national president of the Future Farmers of America.

Douglass has raised nearly $18,000 in donations this year and spent about half. By Election Day, Yost will have spent no more than a few thousand dollars on printing and mailing.

"When I say it's a grass-roots campaign, I'm not just saying that. It really is," says Yost, who has pledged to neither solicit nor accept contributions. "When I go into office, I don't want to owe any favors. I can run the office based on my own integrity and what's best for the people."

Yost faces a unique problem if he pulls off the upset. His victory could be challenged in court because he may not meet the legal criteria for the office.

Under West Virginia law, the commissioner must be "a practical farmer learned in the science of agriculture" who has made agriculture his chief business for at least 10 years prior to election.

Yost, an agricultural major, says he has worked as a farmhand most of his life and understands the industry, spending half his childhood on the family farm. He is uncertain if he meets the legal standard, but believes he best represents the future of West Virginia.

"To me, the future of West Virginia isn't an abstract idea or a hope for generations to come," says Yost, an earnest sophomore who also works as a dorm adviser at Potomac State College. "It is the time in which my generation will live and function as a society."

Douglass says the ever-growing demands on his office would create a formidable challenge for any newcomer "even if you were a biologist or a chemist or a veterinarian or had come up through the ranks."

"A lot of it is learning on the job because there's no book you get it out of," said Douglass, who has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. "I wouldn't envy anybody coming in, really, without some background and experience."

Agriculture commissioner is a statewide office in West Virginia — involved in everything from human health and safety issues to agribusiness and biosecurity.

Douglass wants to focus on more services in the next term, including implementation of an animal-identification system that would let health inspectors electronically identify a cow and determine not only where it was born, but what path it took to market.

Yost has his own priorities, including environmental protection, agritourism and direct marketing programs for family farms.

"Sometimes I sit back and think, 'Wow, this is really serious,' but then I think, 'I'll apply myself and do the best.' It's like any new job: You've got to get to know the people and know the ropes."

Douglass, who met his challenger at a poultry festival this summer, calls Yost "a fine young man."

"When I've been speaking to Future Farmers, I've always encouraged them to get into public life," he says. "So I guess they're taking me at my word."