View From The Top: Q & A with Bill Northey

October 26, 2016 02:22 AM

How did your background in agriculture help shape you into the person you are today? 
Between my junior and senior year of college, my grandmother and grandfather talked to me about coming back to the farm. I’d thought about other things like becoming a banker, a farm manager or working for a company, but coming back and farming with my grandfather was just a great fit.

There’s a difference in the relationship that a grandparent and grandchild have (compared to parent and child) that can be very constructive to business. 

My mom’s dad on the other side of the family had been president of Iowa Farm Bureau for 16 years in the 1950s and 60s. It was valuable for me to be around him as he talked about his version of public service and why he thought it was important and rewarding. At that time, I had no idea that was what I wanted to do.

Describe your leadership philosophy. 
We have a lot of folks who know what to do to make the trains run on time and make their respective departments work. I’m inquisitive enough that I like to ask questions about why things are done a certain way. Part of my job is to ask those questions and look at the big picture. I like to see reports and have an understanding of what’s happening, but I depend on our people to run things. It allows me to get out and talk to folks about what we should be doing differently or what changes have happened over time. It’s easy to have the inertia of doing things the same way, so we challenge ourselves to always look at the big picture and make sure we’re still relevant. We leave the implementation to the folks who have the personal relationships with those in the field to know what needs to get done.

What are some of the greatest challenges you have experienced during your tenure?
In state government and any place, you have to be thoughtful of unintended consequences. Often, you’ll think of an action that makes perfect sense in the world you know, not realizing that action could have negative unintended consequences. In all levels of government, it’s important to try to do just the things that need to be done. State government and the public want to fix problems, but good intentions can go bad quickly if you don’t do all of your homework.

Organization: The Des Moines-based Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship oversees soil conservation, water quality, regulations and consumer affairs. It employs 335 people.

Education: Bachelor’s in agricultural business from Iowa State University and an MBA from Southwest Minnesota State University.

One book leaders must read: “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about President Lincoln and how he brought many into his cabinet that he disagreed with. It kept him from “group-think.”

Leader you admire the most: Winston Churchill, who said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Best leadership advice: As my father would say, if you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.

Favorite leadership quote: For every complex problem, there is a simple solution—that’s wrong. 
It takes many pieces to get something to work.

We’ve spent a lot of time on water quality. Six years ago, we sat down and asked the question: What are the issues that could cause a problem? The regulations around water quality and the impact of those on producers that could potentially take away their decision-making would be a real problem from a political as well as an economic standpoint.

The department put together a nutrient reduction strategy. We went to the legislature and called its implementation the Water Quality Initiative. We got the funding we needed to begin the initiative and used Iowa State University to put the science together for the strategy. Some of the background for the initiative came from being involved in the hypoxia task force and understanding the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is influenced by nutrients. It helped us recognize the political and legal vulnerabilities that water quality issues could bring. 

We wanted this to reach across to urban populations to help them understand water-quality issues. Earlier this year, the Iowa House passed a bipartisan proposal that would have provided $464 million over 13 years. Although that was not passed into law, the legislature did provide $9.6 million per year that continues to come to the department for water-quality efforts. It has become a model for other places and brought the ag community together. We see more acres of cover crops, nutrient-reduction wetlands and other practices than ever before. At least half of my time is spent on the water-quality initiative.

Another challenge was avian influenza a year ago. This was an absolutely devastating situation for producers—and really challenging in how we needed to respond to limit the spread. We were working with the federal government in the process, and while it was hugely important to be able to address it quickly, there was the bureaucracy to sort through in a situation that you’re learning about as it happens. The experience will make us better prepared in the event of another major animal health issue. For example, we’ll make sure the industry is involved so producers understand how the state and federal government would handle it. 

What do you see as the greatest opportunities for farmers? 
I’m nervous about trade and the politics around trade right now, but I certainly believe we have opportunities. We are so strong in livestock production and grain production in Iowa that we need to produce not just for the U.S., but we need to produce for other areas, too. That flies in the face of some political rhetoric, but we have an opportunity to grow, particularly in livestock production. We’ve talked about pork, but we can also have more cattle feeding and dairy production in Iowa. We see some broiler production coming into the state, as well. We’re No. 1 in eggs by far and are seeing investments in the egg industry that would keep us in that spot. In some cases, we’re seeing young grain farmers that don’t even have a background in livestock production hook into those livestock enterprises to be able to expand their farm. They can keep the nutrients on the farm and get value for their labor. We are going to need export markets to take advantage of these future opportunities, and I would hope we continue to have open trade.

What do you enjoy most about being secretary of agriculture?
I love getting out and talking to folks. I’ve attended more than 80 county fairs, and I try to hit about a dozen every year. Now and then, you’ll run into someone you knew in 4-H or back in college. I love getting back to the farm. There are some long days, but meeting new people and reconnecting with friends is a highlight.

Back to news


Spell Check

No comments have been posted to this News Article

Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer