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Iowa Icons: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey speaks at 5th Annual Ag Leadership Dinner in Des Moines. Photo: Ben Nuelle

In this month’s edition of Iowa Icon’s, we feature Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. He began farming with his grandfather near Spirit Lake after graduating with a degree in Agricultural Business from Iowa State University in 1981. He considered other avenues in agriculture after college, but quickly found out going back to the family farm was the right choice.

“I was thinking about going into Ag banking or farm management. He said ‘I’d be interested in having you come back and farm,’ so I did. Our personalities worked well together and it was just the right fit.”

Northey farmed with his grandfather seven years learning the ropes and taking on responsibilities.

“I learned how he did things but he certainly backed off and gave me decision-making responsibilities it was a great experience but through challenging times, it was the 1980s.”

Throughout his career, Northey led several farm groups.  He served as President of the National Corn Growers Association from 1995-96 and chairman from 1996-97.

Fast-forward to 2006. He decided to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. “I felt capable of being able to do it and was really excited to promote Iowa agriculture.” Northey got elected November of that year and reelected in 2010 and 2014.

“I felt like there were some opportunities left undone in promoting and engaging about agriculture. Not knowing what was coming, I thought I had the right kind of experience and right kind of folks to learn from to be able to do a good job as Secretary of Agriculture.”

He ran on a platform of expanding renewable energy, promoting science and technology to better conserve our air, soil and water, along with telling the story of Iowa agriculture.

Northey had been a county soil and water conservation district commissioner where he realized a need to improve water quality in the state. It was also something his grandfather had done.

“That was something always important to him. It came very naturally. My father, and other grandfather cared a lot about soil and water conservation and you could see those issues becoming more important.” He also felt there was a need to continue to tell the story of agriculture.

Northey has also been active in Iowa Farm Bureau. He followed his grandfather E. Howard Hill, who served as president from 1947 – 1963.

In 2013, he contemplated running for U.S. Senate but later found out that wasn’t a good fit. He said there were a few reasons. He loved his job as secretary and they were just beginning on the nutrient reduction strategy.

Water quality would be something he would continue to work on throughout his career as secretary and even beyond. Northey encourages the state legislature to pass long-term water quality funding next session even if he will be in Washington.

As a result of his involvement in many organizations, Northey has traveled around the world to observe agriculture and society. He said he couldn’t pick just one because each place is unique. Places he would love to go back to are Kosovo and China, to name a few.

There are also many dates Northey reflected on. One of those includes the devastating avian influenza outbreak occurring in April 2015.

“The first thing you think of is what a terrible situation for the producer. They spend their whole life caring for these birds and now they have to put them down in the interest of neighbors.”

Iowa took an economic hit of $1.2 billion after having to put down more than 30 million hens and 1.5 million turkeys.

“I wish we could have known at the beginning what we learned by the end. We saw the disease be extremely aggressive and it’s ability to move from farm to farm.”

This was a bad time for Iowa but a learning experience everyone will remember.

Finally we jump ahead to September 1, 2017. President Trump appointed Northey to serve as USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

“The USDA job may as well be something I’ll have a chance to be able to have a chance to look back on. It is not something I was aspiring to or thinking it was going to happen.”

Northey added if this comes about, to be able to work on natural resource issues and others like crop insurance certainly would be a great opportunity.

The Senate still must confirm Northey. He said he looks forward to it but until that happens, he will continue serving as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture.

*Iowa Icons is a monthly newsletter featuring important Iowans who have made an influence in the state, across the country, or around the world. If you want to sign up to receive this newsletter or know someone who should be featured, please email ben@iowaagribusinessradionetwork.com