Northey, resigning for top USDA job, says he’s leaving a ‘job of a lifetime’

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Bill Northey says he’s leaving a “job of a lifetime” as he steps down as Iowa ag secretary, but adds he’s looking forward to helping more farmers in his new job as a USDA under secretary.

“It’s a job that I have loved every day” even though “some days haven’t been easy,” said Northey, who expects to begin his new job in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Northey resigned as Iowa’s agriculture secretary Monday afternoon, and his deputy, Mike Naig, was sworn in shortly afterward.

Gov. Kim Reynolds named Naig to fill Northey’s term, which runs through 2018.

Agriculture in Iowa “is filled with great people, and I’ve had a chance to meet many” of them, Northey said.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will swear in Northey on Tuesday at the Iowa Agriculture Leaders Dinner in Des Moines.

Northey, under secretary for farm production and conservation, will lead the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency.

One of Northey’s first challenges will be helping lawmakers as they hammer out a new farm bill. “I’m sure we’ll want to make sure that farm bill works for producers out in the countryside,” he said.

“A big role of the administration is to be a resource for Congress and its staff,” Northey said. “I don’t go into it with a big notion that my position will change the direction of the farm bill.”

Northey said he was proud of the state’s response to the avian influenza outbreak in 2015, which killed 31.5 million birds in Iowa.

The disease cost Iowa $1 billion in lost egg, chicken and turkey production. “It was an extremely challenging time,” Northey said.

Several state and federal agencies came together to help producers through what was likely “the worst time in their professional careers, in their farm families’ lives. But almost every one of those farms is back up, producing poultry again,” he said.

Another challenge has been addressing agriculture’s impact on water quality.

Northey helped the state develop the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan designed to reduce by 45 percent the nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the state and contributing to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.

It’s an area about the size of New Jersey that’s unable to support aquatic life each summer.

“We get 35 inches of rainfall across 36 million acres in Iowa” annually, Northey said. “We have a rich soil that gives up nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — whether underground or on the surface.”

“The challenge of managing that is daunting but we’re engaging,” said Northey, adding that the state is in “the beginning” of the effort.

During Northey’s tenure, Des Moines Water Works sued officials in three northwest Iowa counties, claiming underground drainage tiles funneled high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 residents.

The lawsuit was dismissed but not before sparking debate over agriculture’s contribution to Iowa’s water quality problems.

This year, Iowa lawmakers approved spending $282 million to address water quality challenges over 12 years, about half of which is expected to help farmers add more conservation practices that better hold nutrients in fields.

Northey said Iowans are more focus on water quality than ever before.

Northey said he was “very proud of the work that’s been done, both by the department and by its many, many partners.”