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Iowa’s Ag Secretary Eyes USDA Role Possibilities

Northey prepared to accept USDA call.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- “Yes, I would be interested, if I got that call to serve in a role within the USDA,” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Successful Farming at Friday.

It’s widely believed that Iowa’s ag leader is on newly confirmed USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s short-list for deputy secretary.

As of Friday, Secretary Northey’s last communication with Secretary Perdue was earlier this week at the White House, as Northey joined President Trump, the new USDA leader and other ag leaders for a roundtable.

“It was great to have a conversation with Secretary Perdue at the White House. I’ll be taking phone calls if I get them. Otherwise, I’ll be supportive of whomever he chooses to put on his team.”

With Secretary Perdue being a Southerner, Secretary Northey would represent Corn Belt farmers.

“I love what I’m doing. So, an offer by the USDA secretary would have to be something that I felt that I could significantly contribute to. Right now, we’ll see whether I fit directly into that team or my role is working with the administration from Iowa,” Northey says.

Secretary Perdue is tasked with naming a deputy secretary, seven undersecretaries, assistant deputy undersecretaries, as well as administrators.  

In previous administrations, the USDA deputy secretary oversees day-to-day operations and frees the secretary to do the big-picture policy issues.

For instance, the deputy plays a lead role in negotiating the annual budget, a multi-month debate.

“I think the secretary has a great short list of people who are interested in serving as a deputy or undersecretary, with people from different regions of the country with different experiences. So, as he puts the puzzle pieces together, he has a lot of options,” Secretary Northey says.

Northey adds, “I think USDA Secretary Purdue is going to be a good secretary. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. I think the president has put together a good team with a good approach of working together.”

New Trade-Focused Undersecretary

The Trump administration will change up the program areas that make up the USDA, Northey says. Traditionally, undersecretaries served program areas such as Foreign Agricultural Services (FAS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), Risk Management Agency, and others.

“I think the plan is to have a trade-focused undersecretary. Traditionally, that has been served by that FAS position, with foreign ag services falling under that umbrella. But the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agency and other agencies have some ag trade responsibilities, as well. This undersecretary would strictly be focused on trade,” Northey says.

Northey qualified his comments by saying it’s unknown whether Secretary Perdue will start with a team that has a trade-focused undersecretary or start with a traditional team and move the pieces around under the undersecretaries.

It’s interesting to note that Iowa’s current Governor Terry Branstad is set to become the Trump administration’s ambassador to China, with trade relations being the main focus of that role.

Branstad’s Senate Hearing has been scheduled for next week, after being selected in December 2016.

If chosen by USDA, Secretary Northey would not face a hearing, instead would simply resign his position of Iowa Ag Secretary.

White House Visit

While at the White House this week, Secretary Northey was happy to learn that President Trump was engaged with agricultural issues.

“I wouldn’t say that he understands all of the issues involved in agriculture, but he certainly has an interest.”

During the roundtable, Trump wanted to know if those ag folks around the table were able to get workers, asked about trade issues, and shared his perspectives on current trade issues with dairy and softwood lumber, Northey says.

“He leaned heavily on Secretary Perdue to provide more information about how trade is going with Mexico, showing a desire to learn more,” Northey says.

Making USDA Better

Northey and Perdue have visited one-on-one, recently, with the main topic being how USDA can work better between its own agencies and for farmers in the countryside, Northey says.

“As Secretary Perdue would say, USDA needs to work in a way that it is serving its customers, the folks in the countryside. Whether it’s through the offices of NRCS, FSA, or the crop insurance program that needs to get cross-purposes with cover crops, improving the approach of government should be the focus.”

Brazil Wants Ethanol Import Tariff

On Wednesday, Brazil’s ag minister announced a proposal for a 20% tariff on ethanol imports, after a surge in those products from the U.S.

Brazil’s cane producers can make more money by selling the raw material for sugar, opening up a need for ethanol producers to shift to importing the corn-based alternative fuel to fill domestic needs.

A national impact on ethanol has a direct impact on Northey’s state corn producers.

“Those ethanol exports to Brazil are awfully important to us. It would make great sense for a trading system to allow for markets to respond. If you create restrictions to that trade, like Brazil’s ag minister is trying to do, we disagree with that,” Northey says. It’s similar to our disagreement with the restrictions of U.S. ethanol that China has put on our product. We understand China is going to produce more ethanol on their own, in the future. But there still should be trade. And these kind of haphazard, changeable trade situations are the exact things that cause disruptions in our markets and impact prices to our producers,” Northey says.

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