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Q&A with Bill Northey

Successful Farming caught up with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey at the Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines on January 25, 2017.

SF: Do you see a trade war in our future?

BN: None of us knows how that’s going to play out. We are trying to assess it. As last year went along, there was a greater appreciation within the Trump campaign for the need for trade in agriculture. One of those voices was Sam Clovis, who is now the liaison from the White House to the USDA. He said we need trade to work as well for other sections as it is working for agriculture. They expect to get engagement by the ag community on trade issues. Ag right now economically needs trade.

SF: Have you talked to President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue?

BN: Not yet. I don’t know him personally, but he has a great reputation for being supportive of trade. I expect him to be very active in advocating for trade. We need to be good trading partners and hold up our end of the bargain and honor trade deals, and we expect that from others. China shouldn’t be restricting ethanol, among other things. Hopefully there will be opportunities to grow exports. It’s not going to be easy. If we take one step back, as long as there are two steps forward, we are moving ahead. We can’t allow China or another countries to veto technologies that make sense.

SF: How damaging could a trade war be to the pork industry, for example?

BN: We export 25% of our pork, and a great proportion of that is variety meats and other things we don’t value highly, like pigs ears, hides, and intestines. If we lose those markets, it would have more than a 25% impact domestically.

SF: What are you expecting from this administration on water quality issues?

BN: We will not see a WOTUS [Waters of the United States] like we saw in the last administration. I hope the effort is to reinforce the nonregulatory kind of approach. I hope we will see some infrastructure investment in water quality. Let’s figure out nutrient-reduction wetlands and other kinds of infrastructure pieces that have long-term benefits for this country in improving water quality.

I would love to see more flexibility within water-quality programs. USDA worked hard at this in the last administration. Let’s build on that. Create flexibility for states to address issues. That doesn’t mean states can ignore them, but the states should get to choose what works for them. Iowa is different than South Carolina. The federal government sometimes has a hard time figuring out how to structure a program that allows flexibility.

Of course, we have got to be responsible in our spending, as well.

SF: Are the voluntary projects showing change fast enough?

BN: We are four years into this water-quality initiative in Iowa. The state legislature is looking very seriously into making significantly increased investments in the water-quality initiatives. The starting point this year is a bill that passed the House last year in a bipartisan way. It was for 13 years at a cost of $464 million, half going toward urban water infrastructure and half toward nonpoint source, mostly rural. It is based on nonregulatory, incentive-based, science-based efforts.

I have heard some folks say, ‘We have a new administration; they are not going to come out with new water rules. Do we need to do anything?'”

Absolutely. This is a great time to show that a nonregulatory, actively engaging, voluntary system gets more progress done. So that at end of this administration in four years or eight years, we can show we got things done.

SF: How is Iowa doing on water quality issues?

BN: We continue to see more work getting done, more people engaging. Measuring water quality is a challenge in a state with 70,000 miles of streams. Which stream segment are you comparing against? How much money are you spending on sampling? We measure things we know are positive for water quality. What reduces nitrate and phosphorous losses? More cover crops. We continue to see increased acreage of cover crops.

What reduces nitrates coming out of tile lines? Nutrient-reduction wetlands. We have 83 nutrient-reduction wetlands, with another 15 under construction. We are investing in bioreactors and saturated buffers. This state is so huge and has so much variability in weather. If you get a 5-inch rain, your numbers change dramatically and can dwarf the impact of water-quality practices.

SF: Are cover crops still popular?

BN: They are still growing. The ag economy has some effect, but it hasn’t counteracted the momentum. Last fall we had over 900 folks sign up in the state cost-share program to be first-time cover crop users. To have that many people come up with their own money, knowing they won’t see all that money come back the first year, is great. They are making an investment in understanding cover crops for the future. They are planning on a future with cover crops, or they would not have dug into their pockets.

We have to allow producers to find ways to build organic matter. Get them started and have them innovate and create. We need to allow creativity.

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