A fourth generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake, Bill Northey is in his first term as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. A Republican, he was elected in 2006. As ag secretary Northey has committed to traveling to each of Iowa's 99 counties each year, holding listening posts to hear from farmers and rural residents with a stake in the future of agriculture.
Northey says these meetings have allowed him to listen to the needs of Iowans and to better lead the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship as it seeks to serve the people of the state. For more information about Northey, his background and his stand on the issues, go to www.billnorthey.com. Northey provided the following answers to questions asked by Wallaces Farmer.
Q: You ran in 2006 on a platform of expanding opportunities in renewable energy, promoting conservation and stewardship and telling the story of Iowa agriculture. Why do you want to be re-elected to this office? What do you hope to accomplish in a second term?
A: We still have work to do on each of those issues and I'm committed to working just as hard on them in my second term as I did in my first. However, there are also three more issues I am committed to working on during the next four years.
* First, we need to provide a strong voice for farmers in response to the unfair attacks on Iowa agriculture. I have visited each of Iowa's 99 counties every year I've been in office and will continue to do so to meet with Iowans and talk about the opportunities available through Iowa agriculture. It is vital we reach out to non-farmers to explain the new technologies farmers are using, why farmers are using them and what are the benefits.
* Second, we need to promote conservation and stewardship of our natural resources, such as soil and water, through the use of science and new technologies. Farmers were the nation's first environmentalists and still care deeply about taking care of the land. New farming techniques and updated technologies have allowed farmers who raise crops and livestock to significantly reduce their environmental impact, but we still have more work to do.
Just one example of the opportunities available is installing and using nitrate removal wetlands to help address water quality issues here in Iowa and also downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. We need to continue to find and support programs and practices that help farmers feed the world while continuing to better protect the environment.
* Third, I'm focusing on efficient, effective and transparent leadership to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The department's budget has been cut 23% over the last two years, and that means we need to do things smarter and more efficiently. Individuals, families and private businesses have been cutting back and doing with less during the current recession, and government can do the same. We have put the department's budget online so taxpayers can know where their money is going. We look at ways of doing things differently and more efficiently, so we can get all the work done but in the most efficient manner possible.
Q: Ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy are very important to Iowa farmers and the state's economy. These sectors have grown in the past decade but now face real roadblocks. What can be done to keep these industries viable? What can the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture do to help?
A: It is vitally important that the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture be an advocate for the renewable fuels industry. Ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy have been a great boon for rural Iowa, and we need to make sure they remain strong.
First, consistent federal policy is critically important. The damage done to the biodiesel industry by the expiration of that tax credit is terrible. We can't let that happen to ethanol and the wind industry.
Second, we need to start addressing the blend wall. We need EPA to approve E15 for all cars. The science is there to do so and we need them to act. We also need to get more flex-fuel vehicles on the road and increase the capacity to deliver E85 and other higher blends, and increasing the number of blender pumps that are deployed would be a way to do that.
Finally, we need an Iowa Secretary of Agriculture who will defend the industry from unfounded attacks. Ethanol went through that a few years ago with "food vs. fuel" issues and we need to make sure we are ready and aggressive in talking about the benefits of renewable fuels both here in Iowa and nationally.
Q: Your opponent in the race for ag secretary says farmers should produce their own energy on-farm, and use biofuels made from grass or perennial crops and power this on-farm production with wind. He says ethanol subsidies should be shifted away from corn ethanol to ethanol made from biomass. Do you think ethanol made from corn and biodiesel from soybeans should still play a role?
A: New, on-farm energy production has real potential, but it's critically important that we continue to support corn-based ethanol and soy biodiesel. I think it is important to remember that any new energy production technique will need subsidies to get started, just as ethanol and biodiesel did. If these developing technologies see the rug being pulled out from underneath the existing industry, as has been the case with the expiration of the biodiesel tax credit, it will make it much more difficult to convince investors to support new technologies. Consistent, long-term policy is critical to the entire renewable fuels sector.
Q: When ethanol was first getting started 30-plus years ago, farmers wanted to make it on-farm and tried to do so to keep the profit entirely in local communities. On-farm didn't work. Ethanol ended up being made by commercial plants and some of those today are still owned by farmers and local residents who bought shares to build them. Some of the plants have been sold and some of the buyers are oil firms. Does it bother you that oil companies are owning ethanol plants?
A: I love it that ethanol is a homegrown fuel that was developed by farmers. I think, yes, in an ideal world all of the plants would still be owned by farmer investors. But I do think the fact that outside investors and even oil companies are buying ethanol plants points to the health of the industry and the fact they are no longer trying to shutdown the industry. So, if they are going to keep operating the ethanol plants in our rural communities and using this homegrown fuel, that is not a terrible thing.
Q: Your opponent is urging the Obama administration to try to break up what he says is a concentration of corporate power in the meat processing and seed industries. What issues do you see here? Is concentration and lack of competition in the marketplace a threat to family farms? Does it need to be investigated?
A: A lack of competition is absolutely a threat to farmers and I think it is a good thing that the federal government is looking into competition issues. I participated in the hearing the administration held here in Iowa earlier this year and believe that the information and discussion presented at the hearing has lead to some very good discussions. However, I would add that "big" does not necessarily mean bad. So, I do think it is important that we do not add additional regulation just for regulation's sake to the larger business entities, which in the end would just drive up costs to the farmer. I also am concerned about unintended consequences. Even with the best of intentions, innovation can be stifled and producers could have trouble banding together to market their products.
Q: Both you and your opponent advocate for more locally produced food to be sold in Iowa. You've worked the past four years to expand this value-added effort. What is Iowa's potential to supply its own fruits, vegetables and other foods?
A: Iowa has great farmers, including those who raise fruits and vegetables for local consumption. I think there are real opportunities for these products to continue to expand. We have a program within the Iowa Department of Agriculture that helps farmers raising local foods to get that food into our schools and other state institutions, and I think we can do more work there.
Also, programs that have helped farmers build high-tunnel hoop buildings and other such facilities that extend the growing season have been successful and we need to continue to support those efforts. Numbers of farmers markets and sales from those markets have grown considerably over the last four years and can have an opportunity to grow over the next four years. I would like to be a part of helping to make that happen.
Q: Perhaps the biggest issue facing Iowa agriculture is where will the next generation of farmers come from? What more needs to be done to provide opportunity for young people to get started farming?
A: There are a few programs, both on the state and federal level, designed to help young farmers get started and I am fully supportive of them. But, what is really critical to the next generation getting started is profitability. The fact that there has been some profitability in agriculture in recent years is why we are seeing record enrollments at Iowa State University's College of Agriculture, and we need to continue policies, like ethanol, which have helped lead to that. A viable livestock industry is also important to beginning farmers.
Q: Livestock issues, such as manure regulation and food safety, have been hot topics during your first term. Where can improvements be made? Some folks suggest stronger state regulations on livestock and poultry operations. Keeping in mind that raising livestock is a way for young people to get started in farming, what's your view on what's needed to help Iowa's livestock industry survive and thrive?
A: It has been challenging, the last few years, for livestock producers economically. And what I'm hearing now from producers is the regulatory uncertainty that currently exists is one of their biggest challenges. They are very worried that they will make a major investment to build a livestock facility in accordance with state rules, and then either those rules or federal rules will be changed, and additional investments will have to be made in order to comply. It is critical that we give producers who are making long-term investments some certainty that regulations won't continually be changing on them.