You are here
Why Tim Gannon Wants to Be Iowa Secretary of Agriculture
Tim Gannon, Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, stopped by the Successful Farming office to tell us his plan to grow the state’s rural economy. He will face Mike Naig in the November 6 election. (See an interview with Naig here.)
SF: What is your background?
TG: I grew up in Mingo, in Jasper County. My dad owned the John Deere dealership in Colfax, so I saw how farmers were impacted by the bad ag economy of the 1980s. Some lost their farms or had to take off-farm employment for the first time. I saw how it impacted the small businesses in small towns and learned pretty quickly that if farmers weren’t buying tractors, implement dealers like my dad weren’t selling tractors. In Iowa, that meant folks who worked for ag manufacturers weren’t working. It was a triple whammy for our economy back then.
SF: Where did you go after graduating from the University of Iowa?
TG: After working in political jobs, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and serve the Obama administration. For a kid from a small town in Iowa, there really wasn’t any place I would’ve rather been.
SF: What did you do there?
I worked all eight years at the USDA under Secretary Vilsack. The first job there was with the Rural Business-Cooperative Services, which does rural economic development programs. In 2009, the Recovery Act was going on. There was a tremendous amount of credit the government made available through guaranteed loans. Businesses in rural America weren’t able to access the tight credit markets that existed at that time. I wanted to make sure we got the guaranteed loan program up and running so small towns didn’t see the economic hardship caused by employers closing up shop because they can’t get access to credit.
From there, I went to work in Secretary Vilsack’s office. Then for the last two years, I was the associate administrator of the Risk Management Agency, helping oversee the Federal Crop Insurance Program, responding to disasters, and trying to make the program work better for producers all across the country. We saw in 2012 that crop insurance for row-crop farmers works really well. With the drought that year, we did not see the kind of economic disaster some thought we might because crop insurance was able to pay people quickly.
There are other parts of the country where the program hasn’t always worked, such as with tree and nut folks, and smaller, diversified operations. We were trying to fill in the holes to make it work all across the country.
SF: Why did you leave the USDA?
TG: Even before the election in 2016, my wife and I had decided that we were going to come back to Iowa. Our family owns a century farm just west of Mingo. My cousin, who had farmed with my dad, had died, and it got me thinking. I wanted to come home and help. Another cousin and I now help my dad on the farm. It’s not a huge farm – it’s 950 acres with no livestock, but it’s been in the family for 130 years. I’d like to do everything I can to make sure it stays in the family for another 130 years.
SF: How would you do that?
TG: We have to make sure farmers can be profitable. That is very difficult right now with what’s going on in trade and tariffs. Also, our biofuels policy has pushed down corn and bean prices. If I’m lucky enough to be elected, I want to do everything I can to make sure that farmers in Iowa have the ability to be profitable, whether they’re at the top end of the age spectrum and farming for their 40th or 50th year, or whether they’re just getting into the business.
Part of that is restoring markets and getting prices back up by increasing trade. We also need to figure out more value-added uses of our corn and beans. Maybe there are other things we can be growing that would have new market potential. We need to process and refine what we grow here so we’re adding value, creating wealth, and creating jobs across rural Iowa. We’ve done this with ethanol and biodiesel. Maybe instead of 40 refineries, we have 100, and they’re half the size and they’re spread across the state.
SF: Does conservation play a part?
TG: There’s a whole economy that goes along with improving our soil health, whether it’s through land improvement contractors, businesses that specialize in cover crops, growing the seeds for cover crops, or advising farmers on when and how best to plant and manage a cover crop. That’s an opportunity that will help young people to stay in rural Iowa.
SF: Many farmers voted for Trump because they were afraid of being regulated out of business. What are your thoughts on that?
TG: With any industry, you want regulations that are commonsense and help provide guidance for how to do something in an appropriate manner. Right now, I hear a whole lot more talk from farmers about prices than I do about regulations. To be honest, there are some regulations that can be beneficial to farmers. The Renewable Fuel Standard is a perfect example of this.
SF: What are your thoughts on the water-quality issue?
TG: It’s really unfortunate that natural resource issues in Iowa have been turned into rural vs. urban. It is the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. We should never lose track of that important land stewardship piece. We are an agricultural state because we were blessed with the best topsoil in the world and plenty of water to grow outstanding crops. If we don’t take care of our soil and water, then we will cease to be the agricultural powerhouse that we are.
We need to work together, rural and urban, to protect our soil. If we focus on improving soil health through greater use of cover crops and other conservation practices, building that organic matter and soil health, that helps retain nutrients and water, and you don’t have downstream water-quality issues that we have argued about the last couple of years.
SF: How do we do that?
TG: We need more resources. It’s hard to ask farmers, especially in a tough economy like we have right now, to pay the entire cost of something that may or may not pay off for them. State funding is necessary. If we pass the ⅜¢ sales tax, we would have a much more significant source of state funding.
We also need a farm bill that has a strong conservation title. That’s being discussed right now in Washington, D.C. The House version cuts funding from conservation programs that we could leverage here in Iowa for conservation practices. The Senate bill does not cut conservation funding. I hope the conference committee will see that states like Iowa and Illinois, where there are concerns about nutrient management, need that strong conservation title on the farm bill in order to provide farmers the certainty that those conservation cost-share programs are going to be available on a scale that we need them to be available.
Farmers are going to continue to invest in conservation because they know it’s the right thing to do. My dad has said many times, “If we take care of the land, the land will take care of us.” He learned that from his dad and my grandfather learned it from his dad.
If we see state investment and federal money that we can leverage, we’ll see more private-sector actors interested in it. You already see this with some companies that help cover the cost share of cover crops or other conservation practices. Just about every corporation from Walmart on down is interested in its customers knowing that it is interested and committed to some kind of sustainable effort. Agriculture gives all these corporate folks a great place to invest and bolster their sustainable credentials.
SF: Farmers are concerned about labor issues. What are some solutions?
TG: When you talk farm labor and labor in processing plants, we need federal comprehensive immigration reform. When you visit pig farms, dairies, or processing plants in the state of Iowa, there are a lot of folks who are Latino or refugees from Africa. We need a supply of folks interested in coming here to fill these jobs.
It’s also incumbent on companies to take a look and say, “Do we need to be offering better wages and better benefits to attract people to these jobs?” We have to make small towns and rural areas attractive places for young families to want to locate.
Sometimes it’s a matter of people not having the right skills, and so we need to make sure that the vocational programs in high school are setting people up to succeed. We also need to make sure that our community college systems are offering the skills and courses that these employers need.
We have to make sure young people know that rural Iowa is a great place to raise a family and there will be that economic opportunity for them there. I don’t want to see Iowa become a place where Des Moines and other metro areas provide economic opportunity while small towns and rural areas struggle to keep up.
We’ve seen population loss in rural Iowa and we may never return all the people who have left, but we’ve got to do something or more and more counties will have just one school system. You have to drive farther and farther to get basic health care needs and services.
SF: How do you differ from your opponent?
TG: I am not going to hold back from criticizing the administration when I think biofuels and trade policies are harming agriculture and rural America. I will choose Iowans over party all the time. When Republicans in Iowa say they have a relationship with the administration and an open line of communication and we don’t see any change in policies that are obviously detrimental to our farmers and our state’s economy, then the relationship isn’t doing the state anything positive.
On the subject of conservation and soil health and water quality, I have said the state should raise the sales tax by a penny so that we can get that ⅜¢ into the Iowa Water and Land Legacy Fund, protected by the constitution. That would give us an increased amount of state funding to put into conservation efforts. Mike Naig has said that he’s against it.
Both of us come from small towns and agricultural backgrounds. But I think the eight years I spent working for Secretary Vilsack in the USDA have given me a broader view of agriculture across the country and around the world. That would be extremely beneficial to the state.