Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

Apr 16, 2021  | 27 min  | Ep 4834 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig (R-Des Moines) discusses the status of Iowa's agriculture sector a year into the pandemic, as well as other ag-related issues. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Clay Masters, morning host and reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Spring brings farmers back to the fields and the issues of agriculture into the forefront. We sit down with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 16 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Springtime seems to stir activity throughout Iowa and that includes farmers planning and preparing the 2021 crop. We're here to discuss the issues confronting the farm sector with Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Mike Naig. Mr. Secretary, welcome back.

Naig: Good to be back.

Yepsen: Good to have you with us. Also joining us across the table is Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Secretary, this past week Iowans saw and heard that a national organization has classified the Raccoon River as one of the ten most endangered in the country due to ag runoff. What is the answer to fix that?

Naig: Well, first of all, that so-called report was a bit of propaganda, I think. It was obviously a Washington D.C. based advocacy organization, they can go out and say what they want to, but what they talked about related to Iowa is not based in fact. We're moving in the right direction. We've got a lot of focus here in Iowa historically leading the nation in efforts around soil erosion prevention and now leading the way on water quality as well. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was finalized in 2013. And we're focused every day on working to get more practices on the ground across the state. That's the answer. We've got a long ways to go and I don't sugar coat that at all. There's a lot of work to do. The strategy calls for a 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous loss off of Iowa farms, Iowa landscape. That's a big number, not easily achieved, going to take time and focus. But the evidence is moving in the right direction. 2 million acres of cover crops. It has taken us 15 years to build 100 wetlands, we've got 50 under development in the next couple of years and we'll double the number of bioreactors and saturated buffers in one project in Polk County this year. That is acceleration. That is where we need to go. We're focused on it every day.

Masters: At the same time, on the topic of the Raccoon River, the head of the Des Moines Water Works says the state is heading towards catastrophe with that river. What do you say to the people that drink that water?

Naig: Well, first of all, farmers are the closest to the landscape, they live in these areas, they are concerned about the water and the soil in their community and their water shed. And frankly, it's one of those we talk a lot about the fact that agriculture drives our economy. Well, what drives our agriculture? It's our soil and water. And so the long-term focus on preserving those resources is critically important. It is true that we're all connected to each other via a water shed. And what I would say about the work in the Raccoon and the Des Moines River water sheds is this has been a focus area for us as a state for the last several years, great work happening all across that region. You're talking well over a million acres of land in that Raccoon River water shed and hundreds and hundreds of farmers. So the work is ongoing. There's more to do. And we do recognize of course we have an impact downstream.

Yepsen: How can you call it propaganda when there are people in the Des Moines area that don't want to drink the water here? When you've got the director of the Water Works who calls it a catastrophe on the horizon? Is this just a farm leader in Iowa blowing off environmental concerns?

Naig: Absolutely not.  And that report itself, the way that those types of reports come out with no basis, they were nominated by an activist group here in Iowa. It's a fundraising plea for this organization. Again, they can do that, I'm not saying they can't. But if you want to talk facts you have to ignore a lot of evidence, a lot of evidence that says we're moving in the right direction, that work is actually getting done every day on the ground. Folks first of all shouldn't feel worried about the safety of drinking water in Des Moines. The Des Moines Water Works exists for the express purpose of providing safe drinking water for the community, for their rate payers, and they're doing that job. It's the law that they should. So we're working in the area.

Yepsen: This issue has really divided urban and rural Iowa and it may have been there for a long time. But when the lawsuit was filed by the Des Moines Water Works that really set off a political firestorm. Is it still, is that storm still going on?

Naig: I still get asked about that.

Yepsen: What do we do as a state, Mr. Secretary? Do we just call the other side propaganda? How do you take the fuse out of this?

Naig: Now, don't drag me too far across the line here. That report that was cited this week and the questions and the media that we've seen, that report is propaganda. But I'm sitting here and you have listened to what I say about we have a challenge in this state. We have work to do on improving water quality. The good news is that when we, for the most part the practices that we need to do to take care of our land and that are good for operations to be incorporating into their operations are also good for water quality. So we're moving in the right direction. No, no, you can't line up and just point fingers at each other. Again, go back to the fact that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy really for the first time says that all Iowans have a role to play, urban, rural, point and non-point. We didn't just do an ag Nutrient Reduction Strategy or an urban, it was an Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that envisions that there are practices all across the state and we all have a role to play. I think the evidence points to the fact -- and this is a really important point -- last year 2020, a year unlike any other in terms of disruption to all of our lives, we set a record in terms of conservation adoption in the state of Iowa. Even in that environment more farmers, more landowners, more focus, more resources, more partners doing more on the ground that at any other time in our state's history. Progress and we're accelerating our adoption of practices.

Henderson: In Iowa the agency that decides manure management plans, which is when you have liquid manure and you apply it on land or you locate a facility, those decisions are not made by your agency, they are made by the Department of Natural Resources, just to be clear. But that agency has granted a permit for a cattle operation that is fairly close to a trout stream. Did your agency weigh in on that? Do you have any concerns about that application?

Naig: Well, look, it's a good point around livestock that some would suggest that we don't have regulation around livestock in the state of Iowa. I would argue to the contrary and that is a good example of it. When it comes to citing facilities or in manure management plans and it's operations of all types need to comply with those things. We did not weigh in on it because it's something that I expect that the DNR is doing exactly what they should do in reviewing those things and approving them if they comply with the law. So that is I think what we need to continue to focus on. I would defer to the DNR.

Masters: I want to go to another river, the Missouri River. I'm curious, this is the time of year, years past where we've had flooding along the Missouri, what kind of thoughts do you have as far as do we need to stop farming in the floodplain of the Missouri River as much? This is just kind of a question that comes up every year around this time.

Naig: That's a good question. I'm thinking of what a difference a year or two makes. Two years ago I think I sat here about this time of year and we were dealing with historic flooding along really the Missouri River and Pottawattamie, Mills and Fremont Counties but we were seeing along the Mississippi as well. If you go down and you actually drive in that floodplain and that area, which I have and I was just there at the end of February, early March because I wanted to see some of that levee repair, you'll be reminded that there's thousands of acres in these areas. So to say that we shouldn't farm in our floodplains, there are floodplains all across the state of Iowa and so that would total up. And here's the other thing we want to remember, there's families that have farmed in these areas for generations. To just suggest that they should just pick up and move it's inappropriate. Now, we need to recognize that from time to time you'll see flooding in those areas. That is why it's important to have a levee system that holds, to manage the river in a way that protects life and property, especially this time of year. Those are all things that remain true. And then we have to be realistic though about the fact that from time to time you'll see flooding in those areas and what is the right level of support for those folks when that happens?

Henderson: In order to farm some of those fields, you have to clear off sand, you have to clear off refrigerators, cars, dead animals. Is your agency involved in making sure that the companies that do that aren't fleecing farmers?

Naig: In terms of that, that particular piece, no. You'd be talking more about -- really this is an interagency, it's an alphabet soup of agencies really when it gets right down to it. But you've got federal involvement, certainly the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and EPA comes in on the environmental side, the DNR, our office has a certain component of that. In terms of business practices that we wouldn't want to see I think the Attorney General would be likely the best source of support there. But that is something you don't want to see happening obviously.

Henderson: You said two years ago. Is all that land going to be planted this season?

Naig: A significant amount of it was last year because frankly we came in, again what a difference a year makes, 2019 we were looking at very, very wet conditions with flooding and then last year we largely were talking about drought. And in fact 99% of the state of Iowa at some time or another last year was in a drought classification. So really conditions were suitable to recovery and clearing that debris and getting that farmed. And so for the most part, there's still, if you drive down through there, you tour through that area you can still see evidence of debris that needs to be cleared. But by and large that area has been restored and is farmable and the levees are rebuilt for the most part.

Masters: At the same time for about the last two decades there have been debates over the management of the Missouri River, there's a lawsuit currently going forward with the Army Corps. How does this conversation move forward because it seems like it's the same fight year after year?

Naig: I think we made some significant progress frankly with the Army Corps of Engineers on this very topic in the last couple of years. I can remember being in Glenwood, Iowa in Mills County a couple of years ago with a large group of folks, Army Corps of Engineers, Senator Ernst was there. There's been a lot of effort around this very question of how does the Army Corps of Engineers stack up the priorities that they claim to have to enforce? Are they protecting endangered species? Or are they protecting against flooding? Those are legitimate things. I think we've actually made some progress. The other thing that happens is on the recovery side of things, getting FEMA, the DOT and the Army Corps of Engineers working together in a way that actually gets the work done, that is another challenge and that is where states really do need to jump in and try to wrestle these agencies together to get the outcomes that we need. I think we did a good job as a state coming out of '19 and I'm, again, optimistic that we're moving in the right direction with the Corps. But we've got to stay on top of that. The Missouri River could also be, it's going to be increasingly used I believe again for navigation. There's a new terminal one of the coops in Iowa has built, it will be cut the ribbon on it here in June, using the Missouri River for bringing up crop inputs or taking product out, a huge opportunity, a huge benefit to western Iowa. Now navigation needs to be much more up on in terms of the priority list for the Missouri.

Masters: A really big infrastructure package moving forward at the federal level. Anything in there for the Missouri River?

Naig: Well, first of all, who knows what is in that infrastructure bill to begin with, but I think what I would like to see, I think an investment in infrastructure makes sense. I think it would be very wise to invest in our aging river infrastructure, both Missouri and Mississippi, frankly all throughout the middle of the country. This is in critically -- it's a super highway to the Gulf of Mexico, if you will, for things like corn and soybeans and then it's an important pathway for inputs to get up the river to us. So it should include a significant investment, things that impact rural America ought to be priorities in that infrastructure package.

Yepsen: Should we rebuild the Gavins Point Dam?

Naig: Good question. I don't know. There's a lot I don't know about flood control on that system. So I don't know what that impact would have.

Yepsen: Well, it's sort of a choke point for that whole river basin. If that doesn't work then nothing else does.

Naig: Let's just say we need to make sure that, one, we can manage a flood event or that we can manage the water coming through there for all the interests.

Yepsen: How do you find a balance, going back to Clay's question, you're trying to protect the environment, you're trying to have a navigable waterway, you have people who live along there, there's recreation. I don't see how you do it.

Naig: Well, there is literally a list of several things that you have prioritized. You've got to start with protecting life and property. That is number one. That's easy, that's easy, and that means flood control, flood prevention has to be number one on that list. And then you work into those other pieces.

Yepsen: And can we -- a lot of talk in Iowa about water trails, a lot of conversation in Central Iowa about a water trail along the Des Moines River. Are we getting the cart ahead of the horse here a little bit? Shouldn't we get the environmental problems solved before we start talking about recreation on rivers that are so polluted?

Naig: I think these water trails and the work that is being done to move us in that direction is a good thing. It's good for quality of life. What person -- when we were all kids we were all attracted to going and splashing and playing in the mud and the water and I think there is something to that. I think it actually brings some awareness to water quality. I think it's a quality of life workforce issue for us as a state. Yes, this is good for us. We'll continue to work on water quality, David. We’re moving in the right direction.

Yepsen: Mr. Secretary, when you and I were kids the rivers didn't have all the chemicals in them that they do now. Right? Am I right?

Naig: David --

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Talk about figuratively splashing in the mud, the legislature is having a debate about whether to have an ethanol mandate at Iowa gas stations and convenience stores? What is your lobbying point with legislators?

Naig: This is a good thing for us, for the state of Iowa. I appreciate the fact that the Governor has put a bold proposal forward. I know that there's staunch supporters of renewable fuels in both chambers and they're working hard to come up with a bill that can pass this session, something that is a meaningful move for us in the state in terms of driving demand and making more ethanol and biodiesel blends available to consumers and one that also recognizes that there is an infrastructure investment that is needed there too, that there's fuel marketers -- we can have a great product but if it can't get into a consumer's gas tank then we're not getting the job done. So an infrastructure investment is very important. Look, there is a compelling reason for the state of Iowa to set a standard. We have an RFS standard, a Renewable Fuel Standard at the national level. I think the timing is right given the whole conversation that is going on around energy, around carbon, around electric vehicles. It's hard to imagine that the administration in Washington can even come close to achieving some of their climate goals if they don't have a continued investment in renewable energy. We just happen to believe that ethanol and biodiesel, which are already delivering low carbon fuels to the marketplace today, by the way, why in the world would we sweep those away in the name of something new? Let's bolt that down, let's lock down the idea that domestic renewable energy should be a part of our energy portfolio as a country going forward. When you lead the nation in production you'd better be leading in how you advocate for it and how you position that industry for the future. Renewables need to be a part of that going forward.

Henderson: One of the convenience store industry's lobbyists said, we're not telling farmers what to plant, please don't tell us what to sell. How do you counter the free market argument?

Naig: I think, again, remember that I heard it put so well many years ago which is we're relying on our competitor to sell our product. If left to their own devices the petroleum industry would mandate a 100% petroleum based fuel on us. For many reasons, the Congress of the United States many years ago decided that domestic renewable energy production was a worthy goal and a compelling reason to go in this direction. For many of those same reasons, because of how important it is to the state of Iowa -- look no further than think of who benefits from a gallon of ethanol being consumed versus a gallon of petroleum being consumed. Iowans benefit, thousands of Iowans benefit from every gallon that is consumed. And that is the compelling reason for us to move in this direction.

Masters: I want to talk about farm economy here. During the Trump administration years there's a lot of relief payments for coronavirus, also trade relief. I'm curious, how do you unwind from that when there's less federal support?

Naig: Well, the best way to unwind from that is when markets are such that you can make a profit without that kind of support. You go back and you think '17, '18, '19 we were talking a lot about trade disruptions and trade payments, then '20 hits and we're talking about really through no fault of anyone you've got a market disruption that is unlike anything we've ever seen. And so the result of those things is that farmers were impacted the price that they were paid. I couldn't have sat here in this chair last year or the year before or even the year before and said that a farmer could lock in a profit for that year. The cost of production exceeded what they could be paid. That's not true today. You've got corn just south of $6. You've got soybeans just north of $14. And maybe there's more even to come depending on what happens with demand. You can sit here today knowing that you're going to go to the field and be able to make a profit. That is where we want to be. So that is the best scenario that we could imagine coming out of all the volatility and all the uncertainty of the last several years is to be in a place where markets are driving prices.

Henderson: Last spring you distributed federal stimulus money to meat lockers around the state. The legislature is now talking about creating a fund to do the same thing, to expand meat lockers. Is that a viable business opportunity in the state of Iowa? Is there a ceiling at which expansion just doesn't make sense?

Naig: Oh, you bet. This is a great -- you're looking for silver linings that come out of last year and this truly could be one of those where you go visit, and I like to get around to our meat lockers, they are busy. They are booked out through the end of the year, you're booking out spaces into 2022. And we did, the Governor allocated some CARES Act money to try to, again, address some of these pinch points, if you will. How could we help build capacity at small meat processors across the state because of what we were seeing in our large processing complex? So I think the short answer is tremendous opportunity, lots of growth potential I think for the existing meat lockers, I think we're going to see new entries into that space too, new lockers, new processors. Iowa has got a great brand for agriculture of course, but I think for meat in particular you could really see this take off. So I love the bill in the legislature. Representative Ingels carried that, it's his first piece of legislation I think, it's spot on. I have asked for some dollars for a value added ag grant program. I think these two match up very well. We need to look at some workforce challenges with meat lockers. Lots of potential here.

Yepsen: How big a threat to the meat industry in Iowa are these artificial meats, vegetable based meats? A younger generation of consumers are much more interested in it.

Naig: Yeah, hard to say in terms of what level of threat I'd say. But you have to acknowledge that this is a new entry into the protein space, the alternative protein space. It's not a fad, I think it is a trend that will continue. What percent of consumers will ultimately make a full move there or how much will they incorporate into their diet? I don't know. But look, I think this is one of these situations where I'd say the agriculture community largely should not, we shouldn't be interested in trying to ban a certain type of product, we ought to be able to go out and market our products based on their value and their benefits. So if you're in the beef production or pork production go out and sell the heck out of the fact that you've got a very natural, sustainable product that you can put on the plate.

Henderson: Just a couple of minutes left. The legislature has sent the Governor a bill about trespassing on ag facilities. This is one of multiple attempts to try to establish new penalties for going on an ag property and taking pictures and in this instance taking samples from the soil or from livestock. What is wrong with current trespassing laws that this law is needed?

Naig: Well, I think this is an ongoing effort to further strength those protections. And let's zoom out just a little bit from yes, this would impact farms. But what we're talking about is somebody trespassing, somebody entering a property without authorization, a private home, a business, with the express intent of causing harm, planting a recording device. We wouldn't stand for that in our homes or businesses and we shouldn't stand for that in farms too. By the way, I won't even mention the biosecurity pieces, or I should mention the biosecurity pieces of going from one place to another. We should continue to strengthen those laws in the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: What is there to hide?

Naig: There's nothing to hide. This is about protecting your ability to do business, this is about property rights, this is about somebody illegally coming into your business or your property. If there are true humane treatment issues or if there are whistleblower issues folks should report those things immediately and not try to set up a media availability to release them.

Yepsen: We've got 30 seconds left. How do you feel about these right to repair bills, that farmers ought to have a right to --

Naig: Farmers ought to have a right to repair. I think that the original equipment manufacturers have come a long way, made some commitments around those things. We need to watch that very closely. Look, there's complexity in equipment and I get that and there's warranty issues. But I would tend to be in favor of farmers need to be able to work on their equipment.

Yepsen: We always talk politics here. Are you running for re-election next year?

Naig: I am. I am. I love the job. We've got a lot of great things going. I'd love to have another four years to keep working.

Yepsen: Great. Thanks for your time today, Mr. Secretary. We look forward to having you again.

Naig: Thanks.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press when our focus shifts to health and human services. Our guest will be Kelly Garcia, the Director of both the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Department of Human Services. That's Director Garcia at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon and Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa