Former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey will take the oath of office for his new position as USDA undersecretary tonight (March 6). Coming to Des Moines to do the honors is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The event will take place at the annual Iowa Ag Leaders Dinner at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
On Monday afternoon Northey resigned as head of the Iowa Department of Agriculture, a post he held for the past 11 years. At a press conference Monday morning, he said serving as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture has been “the job of a lifetime,” but he’s ready for his new role in the federal government.
Northey will become USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, leading the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. He’ll be the third highest ranking official at USDA, behind Secretary Perdue and Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky. He starts in his new job in Washington on March 7.
One of first priorities will be new farm bill
Northey said he’s looking forward to helping more farmers. One of his first challenges will be helping members of Congress as they write the 2018 Farm Bill. “A key role of the administration at USDA is to be a resource for Congress and its staff,” he said. “I don’t go into this with a notion that my position will change the direction of the farm bill. But we will want to make sure the farm bill works for producers.”
Northey added, “I’ve been told my first couple weeks on the job in Washington will be filled with briefings, so I’ll have a lot to learn—especially about farm programs that apply in other regions of the country.” Northey, a farmer from Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa, admitted he doesn’t know much about cotton, peanuts or everything about the dairy program—certainly not as much as he knows about programs pertaining to crop farming in Iowa and the Midwest.
Why he took the new USDA job
Northey told reporters at the March 5 press conference Perdue has made it clear that “improving customer service within USDA is a priority.” Northey will oversee about 20,000 USDA employees in the three agencies—FSA, NRCS and RMA.
Northey said he agreed to take the USDA position when it was first offered to him last fall because he is attracted to Perdue’s management philosophy at USDA. “He is someone who believes, like many Iowans do, that we need to get out and talk to farmers, and government is supposed to work for the people,” said Northey.
“I certainly appreciate Secretary Perdue’s patience too,” Northey joked, referring to the six months between Northey’s nomination by President Trump and his Senate confirmation to the USDA post last week.
Northey was first nominated for the USDA position last September, but the nomination was blocked by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Running for re-election in oil producing Texas, Cruz was trying to use Northey’s nomination as leverage to force Congress and the Trump administration to dismantle the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS requires petroleum refiners to blend a certain amount of ethanol and biodiesel in the nation’s fuel supply each year.
There were challenges and successes
Northey said serving as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture was “A job that I loved every day, although some days weren’t easy. But agriculture in Iowa is filled with great people and I’ve had the chance to meet and work with many of them.”
Issuing a press statement about his 11 years as Iowa ag secretary, Northey praised landowners for their conservation and for promoting the state’s voluntary approach to solving water quality problems. He also noted the work to improve biosecurity for poultry and livestock and efforts to promote biofuel production.
Northey is especially proud of the state’s response to the avian influenza outbreak in 2015, which killed 31.5 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa. The disease cost Iowa $1 billion in lost egg, chicken and turkey production. But state and federal agencies came together to help producers through “the worst time of their careers, in their farm families’ lives. Now, almost every one of those farms is back in poultry production again.”
He added, “Throughout my time in office here in Iowa, I’ve worked to represent farm families and share their values of land stewardship, hard work, patience, dedication and perseverance.” Regarding water quality, he said the “challenge of managing that is daunting, but we are making progress. I’m very proud of the work that’s being done, both by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and its many, many partners.”
Leaving “the best job” for new USDA post
Referring to being Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, an office he was first elected to in 2006, Northey added, “This is one of the best jobs I could ever imagine. I’m sure there will be times in the future I’ll say: Why did I give that job up? Why did I leave to go someplace else? Serving as Iowa Ag Secretary is a great job—a chance to work with Iowans and work on matters we care about.”
Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture Mike Naig was sworn in as Northey’s replacement on March 5. At the press conference that morning, Northey was asked if he was endorsing Naig in the upcoming election this fall. Naig has announced he is running for a full term and he will face several Republican challengers in a June 5 primary. Northey hinted to reporters that he will eventually endorse Naig, but not now. Northey indicated it will not happen when he’s speaking as a federal official.