Ag secretary candidates chart different courses for conservation, water quality
John Norwood (left) is challenging incumbent Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig (right) in this year’s election. (Photos provided by the Naig and Norwood campaigns)
The candidates for Iowa secretary of agriculture offer sharp contrasts in terms of their priorities and assessments of the greatest challenges facing farmers.
The state’s incumbent secretary of agriculture — Mike Naig, a Republican — touts his administration’s work in the past four years to expand markets for farmers to sustain the industry’s status quo, and he’s satisfied with the slow but steady progress they’ve made in protecting topsoil and the state’s streams.
His challenger in this fall’s election — John Norwood, a Democrat — said Iowa needs a better-coordinated plan to accelerate conservation and water-quality improvements, which includes taking a substantial amount of cropland out of production.
Norwood, 57, is a West Des Moines business consultant and county soil and water commissioner who wants to alter the course of agriculture in the state.
“I think we need a new vision for where we want to go,” Norwood told Iowa Capital Dispatch, “particularly if we’re concerned about sustainability, resiliency, inclusiveness, diversity. Those are all themes that I’m going to be talking about that are super important to the state.”
He faces Naig, 44, who was elected secretary in 2018 after being appointed to the post earlier that year when his predecessor Bill Northey took a leadership job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We have incredibly strong agriculture,” Naig said. “We do have large commodity production of corn and soybeans, but it’s what we do with that that adds value. The value-added agriculture comes in the form of livestock production, renewable fuels, renewable materials, renewable chemicals. Those are things that can be an incredibly strong economic impact for our state, and when it comes to those things, we are leaders.”
Naig lives in Urbandale but was raised on a farm near Cylinder in northwest Iowa. He is a Buena Vista University graduate who worked as Monsanto’s manager of government affairs before the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship hired him to be Northey’s deputy in 2013.
Norwood grew up in suburban Massachusetts, graduated from Yale University — with a master’s degree in environmental management — and moved to Iowa in 2002 with his then-wife, who was hired as a professor at Drake University.
“I’m a big-picture thinker,” Norwood said, “but I’m also not afraid to get down into the details.”
Norwood’s view of the big picture: Iowa has not done enough to prevent soil erosion and to keep its waterways clean of fertilizers, he said. There are more than 2 million acres of cropland — about 10% of the state’s total — that probably shouldn’t be farmed because they lie in floodplains or are highly erodible, and farmers should diversify their operations by growing oats, cover crops and others, he said.
“Sometimes the current secretary thinks he’s the secretary of corn, beans and hogs,” Norwood said of Naig.
Naig said he has focused on expanding markets for farmers, increasing the demand for biofuels and improving water quality — especially by establishing wetlands that can contain nitrogen fertilizer. The state helped build six of them in the past year, he said, and farmers now plant cover crops on a little more than 3 million acres, which reduces erosion.
Those are components of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary framework to reduce fertilizer runoff. It’s often derided by environmentalists as ineffective.
“It’s a strategy in name only,” Norwood said. “It’s not a strategy. We need to narrow the solutions and figure out how to scale up. It’s not doing these things one at a time. … To ask each landowner to find their own contractor for these projects, it’s just insane.”
Des Moines Water Works was forced to start its nitrate-removal system this month for the first time in five years due to excessive concentrations in the rivers it uses to supply drinking water to most of the metro area.
Naig said the biggest concerns for farmers in the coming years will be higher costs of supplies and workforce shortages. He supports a federal guest worker program that would allow people from other countries to work agriculture-related jobs, and he hopes to increase the demand for Iowa ag products with a renewed push by the Choose Iowa program, which encourages people to buy food, fuel and other products of the state’s agriculture.
Norwood said Naig’s administration should devote more money to help contain and prevent future outbreaks of deadly and highly contagious avian influenzas, but Naig commended his department’s response to the virus this year. He is not aware of any instances of the virus being transported from one flock to another, which was a significant problem during the pervious outbreak in 2015.
“I’m very pleased with how the response went,” Naig said.
About 13.4 million bird were culled in Iowa this year after their flocks were infected. That’s the most of any state but is far fewer than the 37 million that were culled in 2015 in Iowa.
The virus is carried by wild, migrating birds, and it hasn’t been detected in Iowa in more than a month.
Naig’s campaign has a commanding money advantage, according to disclosure reports filed in May. Naig had about $156,000 in the bank, whereas Norwood had about $14,000.
With the support of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and large ag companies, Naig defeated Democrat Tim Gannon in the 2018 election with 50% of the vote, compared to Gannon’s 47%. Independent Rick Stewart had 3%.
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