A Look Back at Bill Northey's Time as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture

Mar 12, 2018

In 2006, voters elected Bill Northey to be Secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Now, after 11 years, Northey has resigned from that job to accept an Under Secretary position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The legacy Northey leaves behind includes adoption of a statewide, voluntary effort to reduce nutrient runoff from farm fields into streams and rivers. He also oversaw two significant livestock disease outbreaks and leaves behind improved emergency preparedness plans.

Last August, Bill Northey spoke in Des Moines about the possibility of a water quality bill getting through the legislature this year. It did.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR file photo

Back in 2010, Northey took on an additional role co-chairing the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force. Its mission to clean-up the Dead Zone downstream from Iowa and other agriculturally-rich states put Northey in the hot seat on water quality.

“He wanted Iowa to be one of the first states, or the first state, to develop a plan to address Gulf Hypoxia,” says Iowa State University’s John Lawrence, who led the team that provided the scientific foundation of what became the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. “Since he was the committee chair, he couldn't ask other states to do it if Iowa wasn't doing it.”

Under Northey’s leadership, Lawrence says, farmers’ attitudes began to change.

“I watched agriculture go from ‘this is 1500 miles away, that's not our problem’ to ‘we take care of our land, we know what we're doing, leave us alone’ to saying, ‘we, Iowa and Iowa farmers, are the largest contributor of both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the state of Iowa and therefore we need to have a role in how we address it,’” Lawrence says.

Northey sees water quality as one of the bigger projects he oversaw as secretary. On his watch, for example, farmers went from planting 50,000 acres in cover crops to 600,­000 acres.

“With lots more acres that are not in cover crops yet, and folks that are trying it, that if you'd asked them 10 years ago, they would have said they never saw cover crops in their future,” Northey says, “and now (they) are increasing the amount that they're doing.”

Cover crops keep nutrients from running off into streams and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. Cherokee County farmer Nathan Anderson was an early adopter and he sees their other merits, such as keeping living roots in the soil and providing green cover between cash crops. Anderson met Northey at several meetings focused on cover crops where Anderson says Northey convinced other farmers to give them a try. And Anderson says Northey helped diffuse what became, at times, a divisive urban-rural debate on how to improve water quality.

“As secretary of ag in the state of Iowa, his responsibility was for agriculture in the state and agriculture has producers,” Anderson says, “but it also has consumers. And so I'll definitely give him some of that credit for having those conversations.”

Still, as a farmer, Anderson says there were a couple of areas where he would have liked to see Northey come out more strongly as an advocate. All of Northey’s conservation focus, for example, stayed on water quality priorities, Anderson says.

“My critique would be his needing to have more of that focus, and that drive, on conservation on sustainability, on regenerative agriculture, and on healthy agriculture systems that can benefit and help to grow rural communities and the state of Iowa.”

And Anderson says he was disappointed Northey didn’t take a strong public stand to defend the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which the legislature de-funded and nearly shut down last year.

Where Northey did have a very public and challenging role was in the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, which cost Iowa 31 million birds.

Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, says Northey’s leadership stretched from organizing the state’s emergency response to coordinating with federal officials to making personal calls to affected farmers.

“Those types of outreaches did a lot to touch people’s hearts in that time of outpouring of strength,” she says, “that was what they needed at that time.”

Irwin says even though disaster plans were in place well in advance, the outbreak strained them. Responses weren’t always as quick as producers would have like.

When a farmer re-introduced turkeys to his barn after avian influenza in 2015, Bill Northey and other officials shared in the relief that the virus had been eliminated.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR file photo

“Delays create some frustration, but we knew there was a process in place and there was a leadership in place that had a lot of compassion and care to make sure things were done properly,” she says.

Months after the outbreak was over, Northey says an assessment of how it went led to some changes in emergency planning for future outbreaks. His department had worked closely the year before on a newly arrived and fast-spreading hog disease that didn’t have as severe an impact as avian flu but nonetheless challenged ideas about biosecurity and introduction and spread of novel diseases.

“In the intensity of avian influenza, we made some decisions about how to approach things that later on needed to be changed,” he says, “and so we changed. And it's hard sometimes for government to do that, but we need to be open to that nationally as well.”

Now, Northey’s given up operation, though not ownership, of his northwest Iowa farm and expects to travel well beyond the comfort of Midwest crop fields to serve all of U.S. agriculture. At least for the time being he says he’s keeping his place in the Des Moines suburbs and renting in Washington.

“I'm looking forward to the experience, certainly, the opportunity to learn and make a difference,” he says. “But home is still Iowa.”