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Meet Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig

Natural resources, trade, and labor are top of mind.

After Bill Northey was confirmed as USDA undersecretary in March, Mike Naig stepped in to fill his term as Iowa secretary of agriculture. In June, Naig won the Iowa Republican Party’s nomination to go up against Democratic ag secretary candidate Tim Gannon in the November election. (See an interview with Gannon here.)

Successful Farming caught up with Naig this spring on a hog farm in eastern Iowa to talk about his priorities for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

What do you see as the top issues for agriculture in Iowa this year?

I am focused first and foremost on the nutrient reduction strategy. We must protect our natural resources.

Number two is an issue we are dealing with right now, and that’s protecting and expanding markets, both domestically and internationally. That includes grain, livestock, and renewable fuels.

Third, as I travel the state I’m hearing from producers and ag businesses about the workforce shortage. We need to attract talent into agriculture. We have abundant opportunities for folks to get into agriculture and it’s not just at the production level. Agriculture can include almost any discipline you can think of, from software engineering, to HR, to lawyers, to accountants, and all of the above.

How do we solve that labor situation?

We need to connect with students earlier in school and help them understand the types of opportunities that exist in agriculture. Tell them that there are high-tech, high-paying jobs in ag. We need strategies to attract talent from outside of agriculture into the livestock space specifically. We need a workable immigration policy and ag worker visa programs that are predictable.

What’s your background?

I grew up on a family farm in northwest Iowa. We had a farrow-to-finish hog operation. My dad and uncle still farm together, but no livestock anymore, just row crops. I have spent my entire career in agriculture, focused on ag policy issues.

Today you are visiting a hog operation. How important is that industry to the state?

Very important. One-third of Iowa’s economic activity is driven by agriculture, with one in five jobs tied to agriculture. The pork industry itself contributes $13 billion to the Iowa economy, and 140,000 jobs. Many pork producers have a great story to tell about sustainability. They are committed to conservation. Livestock production connects back to crop production and the feed that we can grow. It is all in a nice sustainable loop.

Why is conservation an important issue to you?

We talk about the value of agriculture in our state’s economy. What is that based on? It all derives from our natural resources, our soil and our water. This is the core driver. We have a long history of work in soil conservation in the state of Iowa, and we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. There have been significant accomplishments in five years, but it’s also a time to rededicate ourselves to the work that’s needed to get us to where we need to go in the future.

Bill Northey was always passionate about cover crops. Are you going to continue that?

Absolutely. Cover crops are a significant part of the nutrient reduction strategy. We need several million acres of cover crops in the state of Iowa. We have around 800,000 acres today. Cover crops are not easy to manage. You have to know what you are doing and have a plan. We will continue to educate folks. Cover crops are absolutely an important piece of where we need to go.

What else are you focused on to meet the nutrient reduction strategy?

Precision agriculture can help us get to a place where we look at land and say, “What’s the best use of this land? Is it in production, is it seeded down to something, or should it be a wetland?” You have in-field practices and then you have edge-of-field practices. We need to use wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, and more. Precision ag technology allows us to get better at targeting the right practices.

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