Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey last week pledged to work to protect and strengthen crop insurance programs and to enhance voluntary conservation and water quality efforts during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.

Northey was nominated in September for the newly-created post of under secretary for farm production and conservation (FPAC) in the U.S. De­­partment of Ag­­­­riculture (USDA). If con­­firmed by the committee and then the entire Senate, Northey would supervise the USDA’s commodity, conservation and crop insurance programs through the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA), which oversees the crop insurance program.

A vital tool

“Crop insurance is the most important part of the farm safety net, and through RMA, we need to ensure that we maintain this vital tool for producers,” Northey said in his opening remarks at the congressional hearing. The crop insurance program, Northey noted, has worked well for some farmers, but not growers of all commodities. “If confirmed, I pledge to work with the committee to ensure that we find workable solutions for all producers,” he said,

Northey, who was first elected Iowa agriculture secretary in 2006, also pledged to be an advocate within the Trump administration for crop insurance programs.

Last spring, the administration proposed a budget that would have made significant cuts in funding for crop insurance over 10 years. That budget-cutting proposal has been strongly opposed by farm state lawmakers, including Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Ag Committee.

Northey, if confirmed, would also oversee the USDA’s conservation and water quality programs through the NRCS. During questioning from Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, an ag committee member, Northey highlighted his work on Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He is also co-chair of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force.

Conservation leader

Iowa, Northey said, has long been a leader in soil conservation efforts and in the past few years has been focused on water quality, both to reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to improve Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams. “We decided we need to be more proactive in the area of water,” he said.  

By cooperating with farm groups, federal agencies, Iowa State University and others, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Re­­sources have helped Iowa farmers adopt practices that have shown to improve water quality, Northey said. He noted that a growing number of Iowa farmers are planting cover crops, building wetlands, installing bioreactors and adopting other conservation practices.

“We have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the momentum we’ve been able to show,” Northey said.

The Iowa ag secretary also affirmed that conservation programs must by voluntary to be effective.

“The voluntary nature of this program is what engages producers,” Northey said. “So it is very important that these programs work well for producers, so they are interested in participating in them.”

Dairy concerns

In response to questions from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Northey pledged to look at improved safety net protection for dairy farmers. He also pledged to study the future of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) after senators from the Dakotas pressed Northey on adding acres to the program and for adding more flexibility to rules on haying and grazing the set-aside acres.  

Along with Ernst, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley praised Northey’s work and strongly backed his nomination as USDA under secretary.  Northey, Grassley said, focused on water quality issues in Iowa years before many farmers and others became engaged.

“I cannot think of anyone better equipped to ensure our nation’s farm programs are properly administered than Secretary Northey,” Grassley said during the hearing. “We’re lucky to have someone of his capability ready to lead the agencies he will be responsible for.”

Applause from Perdue

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also applauded Northey saying the Iowan “will give us a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer who knows the issues facing producers across the nation.”

The Senate Ag Committee is also considering Nebraska Agri­culture Director Greg Ibach for the post as under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, which will oversee three USDA agencies: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; the Agricultural Marketing Service; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.

The two USDA nominees must be approved by the Senate Ag Committee and then by the full Senate before taking their positions. Perdue said he looks forward to “their speedy passage through the committee and floor votes” and urged the Senate to “act on other nominees awaiting approval as well.”

Last week, the Senate confirmed by voice vote Steve Censky as deputy agriculture secretary and Ted McKinney as under secretary for trade, the first Trump appointees to reach the USDA since April.