Last Thursday, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey advanced a key step on his way to likely being confirmed to a top job at USDA in Washington, D.C. He appeared before the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, fielding questions and receiving supportive comments from lawmakers of both parties.
Northey, a Republican, was nominated in September by President Donald Trump to serve as undersecretary of agriculture for farm and conservation programs. The newly created post is undersecretary for farm production and conservation at USDA. Iowa’s senior senator, Republican Charles Grassley, introduced Northey to the committee. Grassley praised Northey’s work and strongly backed his nomination. Northey was first elected Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2006.
Northey’s confirmation appears likely
Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., lauded Northey’s “boots-on-the-ground experience” and called on lawmakers to approve Northey’s nomination “as quickly as possible.” Members of the committee asked Northey specific questions. The committee will vote to advance Northey’s nomination to the full Senate at a later date, and that will be followed by a full Senate vote to confirm him to the position.
Once Northey moves to Washington, D.C., Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will appoint a replacement to finish out Northey’s term as Iowa secretary of agriculture.
If confirmed, Northey would supervise USDA’s commodity, conservation and crop insurance programs by overseeing the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency. In his opening remarks at the Oct. 5 hearing, Northey said: “Crop insurance is the most important part of the farm financial safety net. Through RMA, we need to ensure that we maintain this vital tool for producers.”
Promises to advocate for crop insurance
Northey said crop insurance has worked well for some farmers, but not growers of all commodities. “If confirmed, I pledge to work with the committee to ensure that we find workable solutions for all producers,” he added.
Roberts asked: “If confirmed will you protect crop insurance from attacks like premium subsidy reduction, caps and adjusted gross income limits? Will you work to improve these risk management tools for producers across the country?” Northey said he would be an advocate within the Trump administration for crop insurance programs.
Last spring the Trump administration proposed a budget that would have made significant cuts in funding for crop insurance over 10 years. That budget-cutting proposal has been strongly opposed by farm state lawmakers, including Roberts.
Will oversee USDA soil and water programs
Questioned by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Northey highlighted his work on the Iowa Water Quality Initiative and development of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Northey also co-chairs the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force. If confirmed, he would be in charge of overseeing USDA soil and water conservation programs.
Northey told the committee: “Iowa has long been a leader in soil conservation efforts, and in the past five years or so, Iowa has also focused on water quality protection and improvement. We’ve done this both to help reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to improve Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams. We decided we need to be more proactive on water quality issues.”
He noted that an increasing number of Iowa farmers are planting cover crops, establishing wetlands, installing bioreactors and adopting other conservation practices.
Conservation programs must be voluntary
“We still have a long way to go on water quality and soil conservation but I’m excited about the momentum we’ve built,” said Northey. He believes conservation programs must be voluntary to be effective. “The voluntary nature of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Program is what attracts and engages producers. It’s very important that these programs work well for producers, so they’re interested in participating in them.”
Northey focused on water quality issues before many farmers and others became engaged in the topic, said Grassley, who added: “I cannot think of anyone better equipped to ensure our nation’s farm programs are properly administered than secretary Northey. We’re lucky to have someone of his ability ready to lead the agencies he will be responsible for.”
How to improve dairy program, CRP
In response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Northey said he would look into improving the financial safety net offered to dairy producers. He also pledged he would study the future of the Conservation Reserve Program. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., pressed Northey about adding more acres to the CRP program and to add more flexibility to the rules on haying and grazing CRP acres.
Northey also drew applause from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who said Northey’s confirmation “will give us a fourth generation Iowa corn and soybean farmer who knows the issues facing producers across the nation.”
Farmers Union encourages confirmation
The Iowa Farmers Union issued a press release urging the U.S. Senate to confirm the appointment of Northey to the undersecretary post. “We hope Secretary Northey brings his administrative expertise to the position along with his appreciation of the family farm structure of Iowa agriculture,” says Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman. “We offer our support as he will hopefully soon begin this new role and we look forward to working with him.”