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Q & A: Bill Northey, Undersecretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services

After a waiting several months to be confirmed to his new USDA position, Undersecretary Bill Northey is settling into his role leading Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services. He recently sat down in his new office for an exclusive interview with Successful Farming magazine for a glimpse of his first few weeks in Washington.

SF: How are the first weeks on the job going?

BN: It’s great to be here. I’m learning a lot and meeting quite a few folks both internally and externally. To start with, I need to be able to get my feet on the ground and understand some of the things that are going on here. I’ve had a chance to be able to meet some of the folks – whether it’s senators on the Hill or congressmen. I had a couple open houses. I went up to see the Ag Committee up on the Hill. Both the Senate Ag Committee and the House Ag Committee came here.

SF: Did you have a chance to celebrate National Ag Day?

BN: Yes, I was here. It was fun to be able to have the vice president here, lots of friends that I know from the ag community, and FFA students and 4-Hers. It was fun.

SF: You said you’ve met with some folks from Iowa’s soil and water conservation districts. Speaking of conservation, how are things going on that front as you’re getting adjusted?

BN: National Association of Conservation District folks were in town, so I met with some of that leadership as well as some of the groups. I had a chance to talk to lots of folks from lots of states, from districts and state conservationist, and other kinds of partners in conservation.

I served on a soil and water conservation district back in Iowa 20 years ago and learned some of those connections, the role of districts, and all the partners in conservation as secretary of agriculture. But here, I’m having lots of conversations beyond what my experience has been.

I met with range land folks and others, land trusts that are out there doing a great job in preserving farmland the way somebody intended. I learned more about NRCS, as well. There’s obviously a lot of pieces in this large mission area that impact lots of people differently, and it’s a big country.

SF: Our readers are getting excited about planning for planting this time of year. Tell me about your plans for the next season here in Washington D.C.

BN: This will be a year that I will not get to plant my own crops because I have to have separation here for conflict-of-interest reasons. Because the decisions I make could impact myself. So, I’m not going to be able to actually get out on my own planter. Hopefully I can get out on somebody else’s planter this spring, because it’s a very special time of year.

I’m starting to look at some things to be able to get out to. I’m just trying to start to put a schedule together. The secretary believes in getting out and talking to the folks who use the programs that we have. For the farm production and conservation mission area, it’s everywhere. Certainly, some of those areas I need to get more familiar with and hear from folks.

There are a lot of staff who I want to be able to get out and talk to, as well. I want to hear from them, how things are coming together. What they see. Are there things that they envision us needing to do to be able to help serve customers better?

The secretary laid that out as a pretty strong vision of what this mission area needs to do, and that means talking to our folks and the folks in the countryside. I’m looking forward to that part of it, too.

SF: Yes, we’ve heard President Trump is hoping that Secretary Perdue will rack up some frequent flier miles. Are you hoping to do the same?

BN: I don’t know how it’s all going to be yet, but we are obviously putting these agencies together in a way that will work, putting customer experience first. I sure hope that I get a chance to be able to get out quite a bit so that folks can meet me, see me, and talk to me about what’s important, and that means there are a lot of places to go.

That was one of the things I really enjoyed in Iowa: getting out. Thankfully there aren’t 99 states like there are Iowa counties. There are only 50, but they are a lot farther away.

Even a 15-minute conversation with folks about what’s happening in their state that is a long way away, where the structures of their partnerships are different, or the role of the state agency and NRCS districts are different. They have ideas about what can be done or they have needs. Certainly, there are staffing needs out there that I’m able to talk about. I don’t always go into a conversation knowing what’s going to be the most important that I take away, so I have to be there. I have to show up.

When I do, I come back and if it’s an airplane ride, I’ve got plenty of time to think on the way back. I’m able to think about those things that I heard and how they fit in with the other things that I know. That’s going to be an important part of what I do.

I don’t know how it’s all going to balance out yet. I do know I’m going to run out of hours before I run out of things to do, but I’m looking forward to trying to get the hit the right balance.

SF: We’ve heard from Secretary Perdue these agencies are really going to start focusing on customer service and that sort of thing. Any ideas from your conversations so far what customer service looks like and what farmers are needing?

There’s been some work where they’ve done some surveying, did some interviews to be able to talk to folks both inside the agency and outside agencies, but especially to the farmers who are using the services. We’re asking, how responsive is this? How much do you want electronically? Are they able to have enough time to get out and really talk you through a conservation plan? Can you get your signup done in a timely way or do you have to sit at the office for a long time and wait for somebody?

I think as time goes on I’ll have more opportunities for folks to be able to weigh in and tell me what their experiences are, things they would like changed.

I’ve heard the need to coordinate the information gathering. When I ask for the information at FSA or the NRCS, the other agency needs to be able to have access to that information, so I don’t have to ask the farmer again. There’s a huge IT effort here.

I would also like folks in the countryside to be able to have the accessibility to sign up for programs and access their information, even to the extent hopefully that in some cases they’re able to complete the process at home. I’d like for them to at least be able to start the process online so they know what they need before they go into the office. If we can get to that place where you can do your whole certification online that would be great.

I’m investigating how much I can do short term and in farm loan applications and disaster program implementation. That is a challenge, but there’s a serious commitment here to making sure that gets done.

We still have offices for those who do not want to go online and be able to do this, or need to ask other questions, or have more complexity in their operation than able to be captured on a screen. But those who can and are interested can start and, hopefully in some cases, finish the process online.

SF: On a lighter note, I know people from Iowa are excited to see you represent agriculture at this level here in Washington D.C., but I’m sure living here is a little different. How is the commute?

BN: We live down in Alexandria. So, if I come in early enough – and I generally do – it is still only 15 to 20 minutes to work. It’s about the same from where we were in Urbandale (Iowa) to Des Moines. But sometimes I’ve had that 20-minute ride on the way home, even late in the evening, take an hour. At home in Des Moines when there’s traffic, it turns into 25 minutes instead of 20. Here, traffic turns from 20 minutes to an hour.

Otherwise, it’s a special city. Most of us have taken short opportunities to be able to come here and see the Capitol. But every morning I get to walk in and see the Washington monument and look down the mall the other way and see the Capitol. Sometimes it’s been snowing and sometimes it’s sunny. Most of the time, it’s been dark, but it’s a special place. I’m excited to be here.


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