The World Food Prize unveiled a portrait of Mike Johanns, the fifth Iowan to serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture, at a ceremony on March 7. The event took place at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in downtown Des Moines, where the portraits of other former U.S. ag secretaries also hang.
Johanns, an Iowa native who has spent much of his adult life in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., has lived a life rooted in agriculture, beginning with working on his family's dairy farm near Osage in northeast Iowa.
Mike Johanns and wife Stephanie were in Des Moines to witness the portrait unveiling the afternoon of March 7. Afterward, they attended the annual Iowa Ag Leaders Awards presentation and dinner at the Iowa state fairgrounds. Mike Johanns was the featured speaker at this fifth annual awards dinner. Bill Northey, the current ag secretary of Iowa, started the annual Iowa Secretaries Leadership Awards dinner five years ago.
Johanns left Iowa to earn a law degree at Creighton University in Omaha. He earned it and was eventually elected mayor of Lincoln, Neb. Next, he ran for governor and served as Nebraska's governor before serving as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 2005 to 2007. In 2008, he was elected as a U.S. senator from Nebraska, serving until he retired in 2015. He and Stephanie reside in Lincoln. They have two grown children.
Vilsack’s portrait is being completed
The portrait of Johanns was painted by Iowa artist Larassa Kabel and hangs in the Iowa Gallery of the World Food Prize building with those of the other four Iowans who have held the office of U.S. ag secretary: "Tama Jim" Wilson, E.T. Meredith, Henry C. Wallace and Henry A. Wallace. The portrait of Tom Vilsack, the sixth Iowan to serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture, is being completed.
Johanns still describes himself as "a farmer's son with an intense passion for agriculture."
That passion showed during Johanns' tenure as Nebraska's 38th governor. During his six years in office, Johanns was a strong advocate for rural communities, farmers and ranchers. He enacted a value-added agriculture initiative, signed into law the Agricultural Opportunities and Value-Added Partnership Act, supported the development of a hydroponic produce facility, and signed legislation that focused financial resources on providing transferable, nonrefundable gas tax credits for producing ethanol. He also led eight delegations of Nebraska government, business and ag leaders on trade missions to foreign countries, including Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Australia, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil and Chile.
Johanns a champion for agriculture
Johanns chaired the Governors' Biotechnology Partnership and was state government representative on the advisory committee to the Export-Import Bank of the United States. As a member of both the National Governors' Association and the Western Governors' Association, Johanns concentrated on issues important to agriculture, including drought relief, ethanol and the 2002 Farm Bill.
A graduate of St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona, he earned a law degree from Creighton University in Omaha and practiced law in O'Neill and Lincoln. Johanns served on the Lancaster County Board in 1983-87, and on the Lincoln City Council 1989-91. He was elected mayor of Lincoln in 1991, was re-elected in 1995, and successfully ran for governor three years later. Wife Stephanie is a former Lancaster County Commissioner and state senator. They’ve been married 30 years.
During his address at the 2017 Iowa Ag Leaders Awards, Johanns cited four issues agriculture is facing today and will face in the future, too:
• Feeding a growing world. “World population is now a little over 7 billion; it’s expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and by year 2100, we will have 11 billion mouths to feed,” says Johanns. “Most of the population growth will occur in developing countries, as the world will need 60% more food by year 2050. We need to somehow increase food production while taking better care of the land, too. Today, 25% of the world’s farmland is degrading due to overuse, lack of fertilizer and no pest management.”
He notes that the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to a new UN report titled, “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision.”
He adds, “90% of the increase in food production must come from higher yields. Some of the world’s best farmland is being gobbled up by urbanization. We want our young people to stay in rural communities and small towns. We need to build new schools and new housing subdivisions to get our children to stay. A further complicating factor is 25% to 33% of all food produced in the world today is not consumed; it is lost.”
• Meeting these challenges. “Iowa will lead the way,” says Johanns. “It’s absolutely unbelievable how productive this state is — leading the U.S. in producing pork, eggs, corn, soybeans, ethanol, biodiesel and in the top tier in beef production. Iowa is second in the nation in red meat production. Iowa has 41 ethanol plants and 12 biodiesel plants. I’m proud to say Nebraska is No. 2 in ethanol production.”
• The important role of trade. “Farmers in Iowa and the U.S. need access to markets. About 38% of our ag production goes into foreign markets. That’s 1 in 3 acres of production,” he notes. “Today, we have an ag trade surplus. Of our nation’s farm production, 75% of U.S. cotton is exported, 48% of soybeans produced in the U.S. go for export, 44% of the wheat, 15% of the corn and 75% of specialty crops.”
The top three customers for U.S. ag products are China, Canada and Mexico. “Trade is enormously important to agriculture,” says Johanns. “During my time as U.S. ag secretary, we worked hard to build export trade relationships with our foreign customers. Today, farmers and their elected representatives need to be at the table defending agriculture and continuing to advocate for trade.”
With 90% or more of world population growth occurring outside the U.S., “Why would we want to negotiate away our U.S. trade agreements with our foreign customers?” he asks. “Yes, trade agreements need to be fair and balanced. But one thing we want to be sure about is that agriculture isn’t negotiated away, in favor of trade in some other part of the U.S. economy.”
• Finding the way forward. A former secretary of agriculture in India once told Johanns: “We need to raise bigger yields, need another green revolution, need another Norman Borlaug.” Johanns says water issues are with us today and are the wave of the future — both the amount of water available and quality. “Ag also needs good tax policy, good farm policy, and we must manage our natural resources,” he notes.
“We need to tell agriculture’s story,” says Johanns. “There are members of Congress today who represent 100% urban districts. They don’t understand how important ag is to our entire population. I promise, as long as I have a voice, I’ll be speaking out for ag. We are blessed with a remarkably productive agriculture in this nation. Truly, it’s you farmers who will feed all those mouths in the years ahead.”