Iowa Secretary of Agriculture

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 30, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press our guests are candidates for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig (R - Dallas County), incumbent secretary of agriculture, and John Norwood (D - Ankeny).

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register, and Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio.

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



From farming to water quality, Iowa's Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship impacts both rural and urban Iowans. The two candidates for Secretary of Agriculture are our guests on this edition of Iowa Press.


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


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 30th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests are the candidates for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Republican Mike Naig grew up on a farm in Northwest Iowa. He was working in the Department of Agriculture in 2018 when Governor Reynolds appointed him to the post. He was elected to a full term in 2018. Democrat John Norwood is a small business owner. He is currently a Polk County Soil and Water Commissioner. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Naig: Thank you.

Norwood: Nice to be here, Kay.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation, Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register and Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio.

Masters: Want to ask both of you, there's about 80,000 farmers in the state of Iowa. Everybody that shows up on Election Day is going to be voting for Secretary of Agriculture. Mike Naig, I'll start with you. What is your appeal to the rest of the voters in the voting block when you look at people voting across the state for Secretary of Agriculture?

Naig: You bet. And thanks again to Iowa Press for organizing these up and down the ticket. It's a good public service so thank you for hosting us today. Yes, this is, this is a role that is voted on by every voter in the state of Iowa and so the Secretary of Ag certainly plays a role for every Iowan in terms of things like consumer protection and food safety functions that we have at the Department of Ag and our work around land stewardship. Every Iowan benefits from our work there. And so this is not just a role that is for the farm community, but it is one that does reach to every Iowan. And of course the other core element of our agriculture is that Iowa's economy is driven by ag. When we have strong agriculture, every Iowan benefits from that. So I think that is the other compelling reason that folks should pay attention to this race and the vision of the candidates running.

Masters: John Norwood, what is your appeal to --

Norwood: Yeah, well I like to tell voters that this is the secretary of food, land and water. This position is incredibly important. As Mike described, the mission of the department is broad, it includes promotion of agriculture, it includes protection of our land and water, it includes looking at agriculture as an economic development activity, which is important for rural Iowa in particular and it includes protection of public health and animal welfare. And so if you eat or you drink you should be interested in this position.

Pfannenstiel: Three companies have proposed building pipelines across the state of Iowa to sequester carbon from ethanol companies to help reduce the climate impact of those companies. They have been controversial. Gentlemen, what do you believe? Is this a viable concept for the state of Iowa? John Norwood, we'll start with you.

Norwood: Yeah, my philosophy with the carbon pipelines is that they do not qualify for eminent domain, they are not a public use at least in my understanding of their concept. I think there should be three standards if we build these pipelines. The first standard should be that it is voluntary. The second standard should be that it is fair. By fair I think I would borrow from the MidAmerican Energy playbook for wind towers, wind power, and those are annual payments, annual payments to landowners would be part of the process, annual payments to counties. Why do counties get an annual payment? Well, because they are bearing a new risk. The pipeline is carrying a dangerous product. And so they get to upgrade their EMS systems. I think also the idea of fairness ought to include I think payment to the state to improve water quality, an annual payment. They also need to be done safely. These pipelines are carrying a liquid product. If it gets out it is heavier than air. We have an example from Mississippi. And so I think the pipeline technology would need to be start of art and routed away from schools and other sensitive areas.

Pfannenstiel: Mike Naig?

Naig: Well, this certainly is a hot topic and it's something I hear about as I travel the state. I do hear from passionate people on both sides of this. You've got folks that aren't interested in having their land accessed for this project. You've got folks that don't even support the concept of ethanol. The Sierra Club campaigning heavily against because of the potential upside for ethanol. And then I hear from folks, certainly the ethanol industry, renewable fuels industry and producers who feel that they will benefit from the extension of and the expansion of ethanol in the state of Iowa, that they are interested in this. So I think there are some compelling reasons to be talking about this. Of course, what this does come down to is how do these things get built? Can they be built? And really what is happening right now, the process that is playing out across the state of Iowa, is those developers are approaching landowners, making offers. Landowners have every right to be fully and fairly compensated for the use of their land. So I think we're in a process that needs to play out. But I do think that there's a compelling upside for the ethanol industry if these projects do go forward.

Pfannenstiel: So do you believe they should go forward having heard from all of these stakeholders?

Naig: Well, again, at this point we're in a process. Landowners are being approached. Can a developer satisfy their questions? Can they make them an offer that they would accept? I think that is where this really needs to play out. And ultimately if eminent domain is going to be considered for use in these projects, it needs to be as a tool of last resort, it needs to come when and if there has been significant voluntary agreements that are in place across the state.

Henderson: Well, how would you define significant? The legislature in the House of Representatives proposed a standard, they have to reach a threshold of a certain percent of voluntary easements before they could seek it. Is that something that you would support?

Naig: Well, I think -- so I think the Utilities Board and certainly the legislature may very well have an opinion about what that number should be. I think it should be significant. I'm reluctant to say a specific number but I think there will be opinions on that as we play, as this process plays out.

Masters: John Norwood, do you see these carbon capture pipelines as being part of a solution to climate change?

Norwood: I think there is a much better solution. I think we ought to be focusing on rather than trying to use the carbon pipelines to prop up a declining market, which is our automobiles as they shift to electric vehicles, we ought to be looking at the hard to electrify markets and there's four of them. It's airplanes, it's locomotives, it's marine boats and long haul trucks. Together those are $70 billion. If we want to do something I think that would be helpful to the ethanol industry it ought to be looking at an RFS3 aimed at those markets. Those locomotives that we see hauling all of this ethanol and biodiesel, they don't even burn, those locomotives do not burn biofuels. So that is a role that government could play, create new markets for ethanol, which makes sense, not try to prop up markets that are falling, catching a falling knife.

Masters: You mentioned RFS3. Just in layman's terms, what do you mean?

Norwood: Renewable Fuel Standards 1 and 2 are aimed at automobiles. Renewable Fuel Standard 3 would be aimed at these hard to electrify markets. These are the ones where biofuels make sense because the best ton of carbon stored is not carbon that we take from a pipeline and put it back into the ground, it's the ton of carbon we never take out of the ground in the first place.

Pfannenstiel: Let's talk about the ethanol industry a little bit more. The ethanol industry is facing a perilous future in part because of the shift toward electric vehicles. This project is intended to help support its long-term growth. So, what happens if these pipelines are not approved? What is the future of ethanol in Iowa? Mike Naig?

Naig: Well, first of all, I'm not willing to let the ethanol industry go by the wayside. You're talking about an industry that processes 50% of the corn that we grow in the state of Iowa is first processed at an ethanol plant. That's not something that we easily replace. And so this is something that has been a significant driver for our ag economy now for a couple of decades. It absolutely can and should have a healthy long future and should be part of this, our nation's energy portfolio broadly. To over rely on any one component is dangerous, especially if that is electric vehicles where battery parts are coming from places like China. That is a short-sided strategy. I think that we need to, again, look holistically, look at domestic energy production, certainly renewable energy production. So I do think that the ethanol industry needs to be looking at how do they lower the carbon intensity of that fuel. And there are various ways to do that, pipelines can accomplish that. We should look at higher inclusion rates of ethanol and biodiesel like we've done in the state of Iowa, pushing to E-15 and beyond. Those are the ways I think that we can continue to extend this industry. But also, again, in light of increased fuel costs and energy costs over the last couple of years, doesn't domestic renewable energy production make more sense today than ever before? A gallon of ethanol pumped benefits Iowans and that is what we need to be focused on.

Pfannenstiel: John Norwood, how do you support a shift to electric vehicles without leaving behind Iowa's ethanol industry?

Norwood: Well, I just described I think the primary strategy we need to deploy which is shifting our biofuels. And I don't think we want to forget renewable diesel and biodiesel. That is an incredibly important part of the fuel supply. And we have a great example in the Renewable Energy Group, a leading biofuel producer here in Ames, Iowa, just bought by Chevron. But it's the 70 billion gallons of those difficult to electrify markets is where we ought to be focused for the ethanol and the biofuels industry. And the other thing we need to think about is what is in short supply? What is in short supply is biogas, natural gas. We've doubled in prices. And so those ethanol plants can begin to be reimagined to produce biogas, not ethanol. And so that is how we begin to shift and utilize the existing infrastructure in a way that is moving for the direction of the country because it is the energy background, backbone, it is going to be the electrical grid and the natural gas grid, those are going to be the energy backbones and Iowa can play a role. Iowa ethanol, Iowa corn growers can play a role in supporting that future.

Henderson: Let's talk about a couple of other renewable energy sources, solar and wind. There has been controversy brewing in some counties around the state whereby they are passing ordinances which have sort of canceled out wind farm production. Mr. Norwood, do you think that there should be statewide restrictions on where wind turbines and solar panels and solar arrays may be  located?

Norwood: I think in the diversity, in the 98 counties that I've been to so far in the 30,000 miles driving around Iowa and talking to lots of Iowans, I think there is a lot of diversity in our state. And so I do believe in the importance of local control. And I think wind power, which currently fits into that model, and I think also solar can fit into that model. I think one of the misconceptions about solar as it is being presented is it has to be an either or choice. I think we have to think about the use of solar just like wind power where it is compatible and supports agriculture and there's some good examples of that. I don't think we ought to be using solar on a large scale basis to displace agricultural lands. And so I think these are important decisions that need to be made. But I think the county supervisors and others are often in the best position to understand, they're elected to represented the voters in those particular counties. The state has a minimum standard I think that they have a responsibility for setting.

Henderson: Mike Naig, there was a bill introduced in the Iowa Senate this past year that didn't go anywhere but would have prevented solar arrays from being located on land that is rated as good for growing corn. Is that something you would support? Do you think there should be statewide standards? Or do you appreciate and support county and local control?

Naig: I think maintaining a measure of local control is important in this because, again, you're talking something that is more like development and that there are considerations that really need to be looked at locally there. In terms of this concept of where to site those things, I think we all can understand, I hear from a lot of folks that nobody wants to see that great piece of neighboring farm ground to be put under solar panels, and yet there is an element of property rights too associated with somebody who owns that piece of ground. And can they be satisfied, again, that that is a project they're interested in? So, again, some balance there is important. But I think generally that whether it comes in the form of a county ordinance or whether it is simply policies that developers implement themselves, that they try to target ground that is not as productive, that they can fit these structures into places that are more suited or less suited to farming maybe and more suited to that kind of development. So I think there's various ways to get there but generally I'm supportive of the concept of let's target acres that aren't our most productive farm acres.

Masters: John Norwood, at the opening of this conversation you said the Secretary of Agriculture is relevant to anybody who drinks the water. We're coming up on almost 10 years since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was introduced. For those that are not familiar with it, this is a list of different things that farmers can do, conservation practices on their land, to keep nitrates from going downstream. As we're looking at 10 years and you're thinking of this post here in Iowa, should there be regulation to have farmers put these kinds of practices on their land?

Norwood: The way I'm looking at this and as a Soil and Water Commissioner I introduced a systematic approach to building the water quality infrastructure that my opponent is now adopting and expanding across the state. It's called batch and build. The current Nutrient Reduction Strategy isn't working. The one off, doing things one at a time can't scale to the 23 million acres. So we need to be thinking less about is it voluntary or regulatory, the framework ought to be not doing things one at a time but doing them systematically. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy numbers are up over 30% since this strategy was adopted. It's not a strategy, in fact, as you suggested, it's just a menu of choices. And so we need to begin to think about systematically how do we scale up both the water quality practices? That means drainage districts, working with drainage districts, getting them to not just drain water but to manage water, manage water filtration, manage water for aquifer recharge, manage water for flooding. We have to scale up soil health. That is another important aspect that we frankly, we don't have a strategy for. And I can say that because I'm a Soil and Water Commissioner. I see this firsthand. So these are things we need to be doing systematically I think. And then we have to align federal policy, the financial incentives to support and drive the adoption. 60% of our ag ground is absentee owned. And so when we don't involve the landowner in the conversation, we can't scale these things systematically.

Masters: Mike Naig, how do you see things going with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy? And are there things that can get more people involved to put these kinds of practices without regulation?

Naig: Well, I view it very differently than my opponent, I can tell you that much. I mean, here we sit today in the state of Iowa when I can confidently say there has never been more awareness, more work, more partnership and more resources being focused and more actual conservation work getting done on the ground today than at any time in our history. And we have set records in the last couple of years in the face of some incredibly uncertainty and historic disruptions to all of our lives, especially the agriculture supply chain. So I'm proud of that. I'm very proud of the work that has been done. But I have said many times, we're not satisfied with where we are. We know that there's a significant amount of work that yet needs to be done. So the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a strategy. It lays out practices and approaches to improving water quality. We have led on this issue in this country. Other states have used our strategy as a model. We did a first of its kind science assessment at Iowa State University that said, if you implement this practice there is a corresponding improvement in water quality. So what we set out to do is to demonstrate and then implement those practices. And here's another point that I want to make sure we get across, this is not just a farm Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes urban and rural point and non-point sources. We didn't just create a town strategy and a rural strategy. It is all together. We are working across the entire landscape to see changes in our water quality. We have work to do, there's no doubt about it. But we have changed the complete trajectory of what we have done on water quality in this state and it is bearing fruit now.

Masters: But the progress report shows that nitrogen has increased.

Naig: True, we have nearly accomplished our goals on phosphorous and nitrogen we have a lot of work to do. Remember that historically when it comes to conservation we have focused on preventing soil erosion. Phosphorous tends to move with soil. That is why we are seeing the improvements that we've seen. Historically we have wanted to move water off of the landscape as fast as we can. In fact, that is the sole purpose of a drainage district is to remove water from the landscape to make that land more productive. We're talking about needing to implement new practices to address that issue. So that is where cover crops come into play, nutrient management in the field. And then edge of field practices like wetlands and bioreactors and saturated buffers. And by the way, I think there's a few folks that would dispute that you are the sole author or architect of the batch and build concept. It has been talked about for years. What was lacking was funding to do it. And when we went and fought for long-term dedicated funding for water quality efforts in the state of Iowa, when we got those dollars we set out to implement that approach and now we're seeing that play out across the state in many counties.

Masters: You talk about phosphorous though, is that based on water quality data?

Naig: Right, if you are preventing soil from moving you are typically holding back phosphorous as well. So what we need to focus on is that movement of water, nitrates, nitrate treating wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, holding more of that water on the landscape, slowing it down and denitrifying it. Those are the things that we need to focus on.

Norwood: I'd like to respond to that because the metrics do not align with what Mike is talking about. The water quality metrics, the nitrogen loading is going up 30%, 100% over a longer period of time. We're losing $3 billion worth of soil each year, 140 million tons. That is soil moving. We have Des Moines Water Works, one of our principal water suppliers for 500,000 people and they have to shut off the water supply, source water supply for Saylorville Lake because of nutrient blooms that are based on phosphorous and nitrogen loading. So it doesn't square up with what the Secretary if saying. Now, it may be true we've done more than we've ever done. But we're walking and the escalator is taking us backwards. And climate change is going to make this worse. The current approach is not an approach, it's not a strategy, it doesn't have the appropriate resources. We're talking about a trillion dollars, one of the richest growing regions in the world with a trillion dollars worth of assets, the land assets are $350 billion alone, over $100 billion worth of drainage infrastructure and we're not going to solve that with $10 or $20 million running around celebrating happy projects. This has to be a systematic approach. And there wasn't a systematic approach until I introduced it. So, I would disagree with your comments.

Naig: There are thousands of people who work on these issues and are actually putting practices on the ground in the state of Iowa. I do not consider that a failure in any form or fashion. We have changed the trajectory. We are focused on accelerating and scaling up the adoption of practices across the state. That's the right approach.

Henderson: We haven't much time left. Let's move onto another topic. Fertilizer prices are through the roof. I'm old enough to remember when the state of Iowa spent a boatload of money helping build a fertilizer plant in Southeast Iowa. Why is this happening, Mike Naig?

Naig: Well, it is a global commodity. I think that is the first thing that you have to recognize is that yes, we may have production facilities in the state of Iowa, but it's a globally traded commodity. And when it comes to the -- there's two things that you look at with the fertilizer issue. One is, what is it costing? The second is, can you get it? And so we've seen a significant increase in what it has cost our farmers, which of course is largely driven by energy prices. One of the key ingredients to fertilizer is energy and energy cost is a significant contributor to that. Of course we have also seen a disruption in supply chains in places like Russia and China as well. So all of that has contributed to a disruption for our farmers and driving up costs. We do need to look at more domestic production and anything that is produced here and stays here benefits the American farmer, that's for sure.

Henderson: John Norwood?

Norwood: My response is, the reason why anhydrous has doubled, the feed ingredient to anhydrous is natural gas, which has doubled in price. So, synthetic fertilizers the prices have gone up. But the solution is that we want to decrease our dependence on synthetic fertilizers, we want to use more biobased fertilizers. And with soil health we can decrease our dependency on synthetic fertilizers. So really that is the long-term solution. And guess what? Healthy soil means better water quality, it means less flooding. So we have to begin to address the causes of these fertilizer uses, we have to use it more efficiently.

Pfannenstiel: And again, getting down to the wire here. But we wanted to ask about competition in the agricultural industry. The Biden administration has promised to try and increase this, particularly in the meat processing industry. What is the right approach? And how can the state partner with the administration? Mike Naig?

Naig: On meat processing specifically? Well, let's take generally across agriculture and I think it's always important to look at anti-competitive behaviors and to investigate that and to understand what is happening and then enforce those laws and those are largely federal issues. And so we should never be afraid to do those things. In terms of meat processing, increasing processing competition and capacity is definitely a good thing. I think the administration has done some good things, USDA had rolled out some significant support for meat processing. I think that is good. We have done that at the state level with increased support for small meat lockers. And I think also things like Senator Grassley's bill to increase competition in terms of how cattle are purchased also is one of those key components.

Norwood: Regional and local processing is hugely important. And the dollars in the state budget don't reflect the importance of this issue. It's a $250 million budget more or less, $50 million from Iowa. It has been level funded or defunded over the last few years and it is not reflective of protecting one of the more important growing regions in the country. 70 of our counties are in rural decline. Part of that is because of the scaling of this system. And you just have to go talk to some farmers, farm operators for the lack of access.

Henderson: Well, we are completed with this discussion. We have a lot of other ag-related issues to talk about. But gentlemen, thank you for sharing your views on the ones that we did talk about.

Norwood: Thank you.

Naig: Thank you.

Henderson: A brief programming note before we go. On Thursday, our Iowa Press Debate series continues with the two candidates running to represent Iowans in the United States Senate. Republican incumbent Senator Chuck Grassley and democrat Mike Franken will debate the issues live on-air and online at 7:00 p.m. We hope you'll join us. Then there will be another Iowa Press next Friday at 7:30 p.m. on the broadcast airwaves and at noon on Sunday or you can find us anytime at On behalf of the hardworking crew here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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