Bill Northey is arguably Iowa’s most popular politician. Certainly the margins of victory in his last two re-elections support that. Blue-eyed and outgoing, he retains a boyish enthusiasm as he approaches age 60. The third-term Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is himself a third-generation Iowa farmer from Spirit Lake. He has traveled to at least 17 countries to study the state of modern agriculture from a worldwide perspective. Every year, he spends at least a day in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
We asked Northey to lunch recently to talk about political popularity, clean water, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), wind farms, fish farms, ethanol, the current viability of industrial agriculture’s mantra (that GMOs are needed to feed the world), and about good places to eat around the state.
We met at Los Laureles, Des Moines’ original Jalisco-Michoacan-style, sit-down
restaurant. Northey is a big fan of Iowa’s Mexican restaurants, calling them great values and good places to meet new Iowans.
“I usually stop at (Santa Ana), a wonderful Mexican bakery and restaurant when in Columbus Junction, a couple good places in Storm Lake (Plaza and La Juanita). West Branch (Lindo Grill & Cantina) and West Liberty (Gabby’s, El Patio) also have superb Mexican restaurants,” he recalled.
Since we met two days after the November election, I asked him about the precarious nature of political popularity. Specifically, why is the Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship position so stable? Each of the last four secretaries has served for eight to 15 years.
“That’s not that unusual for state offices in Iowa. Look at the attorney general. Tom Miller has been re-elected for all but one term since 1979, including a number of times when his (Democrat) party did not win the governor’s office. Secretary of Agriculture has been stable, with only four of us since 1972, but between 1923 and 1972, there were 11 others.
“I think that a key thing to current longevities in the office is that we all have had a commitment to the job. We like it and want to stay on it. We usually are farmers ourselves, so we care about farmers from having walked in their shoes,” he explained.
At a time when Iowa’s population of farmers (80,000) and agriculture’s percentage of the state economy (5 percent for raw agricultural production, 25 percent for all farm-related industry) are historically low, Northey thinks it’s essential that he get out and be the face of Iowa agriculture.
“Part of that is to let people know that you want to be there and you want them to stay in touch. Whether they are going through a crisis with regulations or because of weather events, I want them to know we are there for them,” he said.
Northey believes his job performance depends upon farmers staying in touch. “We have 80,000 farmers and 400,000 fields planted. Everyone is different and unique. There is no solution that works for all of them,” Northey explained. “Some Iowa soil is too dense for soy beans, so typical (corn/soy) rotation doesn’t work. Those of us who practice no-till never see the legendary ‘black earth of Iowa.’ Nitrogen content varies drastically from farm to farm and day to day.
“Fortunately, Pioneer has given us a magnificent new tool for that. Their Encirca software can measure nitrogen and advise on methods of control. All this diversity is why there is no single answer to problems like nitrates and phosphorous in water.”
Northey thinks that progress is being made on cleaning up water.
“We have increased the use of cover crops from under 100,000 acres to more than 400,000. New nutrient reduction plants in wetlands reduce the amount of nitrates in runoff water from tile land by 50 percent. Encirca prevents the overuse of nitrates. No-till farming reduces soil erosion. Iowa has been spending $9.6 million a year now on such measures, and that budget has passed with bipartisan support,” he explained.
What did Northey think about a recent New York Times column that claimed the European Union (where GMOs are outlawed) is attaining similar yield increases to America (where many crops are now more than 90 percent GMOs)?
“I have talked to lot of researchers, and they all show me that the data in that story were cherry-picked. They only used the most drastic examples of increases in EU and most unsuccessful yield increases in the U.S. I also know that every farmer in Iowa who buys GMO seeds came to that decision thoughtfully and that they continue to buy them because they realize increases in their yields and profits every year while reducing the need for herbicides. GMOs have eradicated corn bores and allowed for less tillage and soil erosion. Remember, Iowa produces more corn than all but three nations — the U.S., China and Brazil. So, yes, it’s still legitimate to say that Iowa farmers feed the world. Most of the farmers I know will dismiss a new strategy to ‘fix agriculture’ simply because it’s in the New York Times and likely written by someone who never farmed,” he explained.
What does Northey think are the plusses and minuses of new agricultures such as ethanol, and wind and fish farms?
“Wind power is here to stay,” he said. “I think it now provides 40 percent of Iowa’s electricity. Also, it’s incredibly difficult and expensive to change your mind about a windmill after it has been built. Landlords love it as a new source of income, farmers less so because it gets in their way and prohibits crop dusting.
“Ethanol was as popular as apple pie and motherhood when grain prices were high and we were importing too much oil from bad people. Now that oil prices have dropped, growth in ethanol production has given way to stabilization. Environment scholars have divided on its impact compared to fossil fuels, too. But it’s stable now at 15 billion gallons a year.
“Fish farming has been disappointing for decades, but that might be turning. Cheap supermarket fish (catfish, tilapia) have a hard time commanding a good price. Iowa farmers are figuring that out and turning to baramundi, shrimp, cold-water salmon, bass and whitefish. Distribution has been a problem, but there’s a new $30 million plant going up in Webster City in the old Electrolux factory.”
When asked about good food stops around the state, Northey said he’s a regular at almost all lockers for smoked meats. Minden and Corning lockers are worth going out of his way for beef sticks, and Holstein’s Tiefenthaler’s is for “no mess Coney’s.” He also praised Cronk’s café in Denison and Stubb’s in Spencer. ♦