Five Good Choices for Secretary of Agriculture

There is no Republican seeking the nomination for either State Treasurer or Attorney General in the primary next Tuesday (5 June), but there are five in the running to be the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture; for Republicans the race is the only statewide one with a contest at all, but the large number of candidates makes choosing difficult none the less. The number would not present a problem if one or two seemed clearly unsuited for the post, or if one or two seemed clearly superior to the rest, or if they were sharply divided on important issues, but none of those things happens to be the case.

The candidates in brief:
Mike Naig, 40, who grew up on a crop and livestock farm near Cylinder (Palo Alto Co.), is the incumbent, but has only been in office since March, since his predecessor, Bill Northey, although nominated by President Trump to be Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services in Sept. 2017, could not get a vote in the Senate until the end of Feb. 2018 (and the reason for the delay this time was not Cryin’ Chuck, but Lyin’ Ted); Naig had worked under Northey as his deputy from 2013
Ray Gaesser, 65, a corn and soybean farmer from Corning (Adams Co.), a former president of the Iowa and American Soybean Associations; in addition to owning 650 acres, with his wife and son he rents or custom farms another 5,400 acres, and grows 3,000 acres of corn and 3,000 acres of soybeans; he has participated in more than 50 foreign trade missions
Chad Ingels, 49, a hog farmer from Randalia (Fayette Co.), a former chairman of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and formerly an Iowa State University Extension Watershed Specialist for 17 years
Craig Lang, 67, a dairy and cattle farmer from Brooklyn (Poweshiek Co.), a former long-time president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (2001-2011), serving concurrently as chairman of the board of the FBL Financial Group; he also served as vice chairman of the Iowa Economic Development Board under Gov. Tom Vilsack, and as a member (2007-2011) and president (2011-2013) of the Iowa Board of Regents; with his two sons he farms 1,200 acres, milks a 700-head dairy herd, and runs a cow/calf beef operation
Dan Zumbach, 57, a farmer from Ryan (Delaware Co.), has been a state senator since 2013 and currently chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

At a forum on KXEL-AM on Tuesday (29 May), Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises Iowa newspapers, asking the final question, invited the candidates to say what one thing they wanted the voters to know about them and to keep in mind as they cast their ballots.

Naig stressed his backers: “I would like folks to remember that I’m on the job today. I was appointed by Gov. Reynolds. I was hired by Bill Northey, am endorsed by Bill Northey, and I think that those facts speak to my ability and my credentials.”

Gaesser underscored “decades of experience not only leading in water quality on our farm, in doing those practices and implementing them, but also on trade around the world and opening markets.”

Ingels highlighted water: “Not only am I a farmer, but I also have almost 20 years’ experience working with farmers individually and in farmer-led watershed groups, working to improve water quality in their parts of the state. I have some innovative ideas that only come from that experience, understanding that the programs need to be as simple as possible, but still be effective; they can be cost-effective, yet efficient, and we can do it through farmer innovation, not government push…; we need to let the farmers take the lead, and they will solve the water quality issue.”

Lang was very succinct, highlighting soils: “When Iowa farmers do well, Iowa excels. That’s why I went with healthy soils, because healthy soils create wealth, and healthy soils retain nutrients and keep it out of the water.”

Zumbach stressed his backing from “forty-five legislators, and counting, plus Gov. Walker from Wisconsin” and added: “I’ve been through a lot in my life, working through the tornadoes, the floods, the fires, and I have the ability to persevere through some really tough times.”

The previous Wednesday (23 May), at a forum in Urbandale organized by the Westside Conservative Club, Gaesser made a statement which might have been a better closing argument: “I don’t look at this job as a steppingstone. I’m not wanting to be Governor or Senator or anything like that. I want to be Secretary of Agriculture because I think that’s where I’m really good at. I’ve done that for decades. I want to be a hands-on secretary.”

People often say that endorsements don’t change any votes; nevertheless, it seems smart for Naig to tout the endorsement of Northey, not just because Northey is respected, and perhaps not mainly for that reason, but simply because Northey is in a position to know whether or not Naig is up to the job; still, it seems likely that getting the endorsement of Northey will help Naig less than not getting it would harm him. For similar reasons, it seems to me, Zumbach helps himself more when mentioning those 45 state legislators from Iowa than when trumpeting the endorsement of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and now that of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, since the relatively less famous state legislators are the ones who know him and have worked with him; I doubt whether Walker or Rubio know any more about farming than I do. My expertise on the subject has the following basis: 1) both of my parents grew up on farms; 2) my father was a livestock buyer; 3) I met Bob Lounsberry one day in 1982; therefore, I’m not qualified to recommend to anyone else how they should choose among the five.

All the candidates are opposed to new regulations on livestock confinements, and all oppose transferring any regulatory responsibility from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, which aims to cut nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45%, is showing results; cover crops prevent soil erosion and reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 30%, but currently only about 750,000 acres in Iowa are planted with cover crops each fall. Lang believes we should aim for 5,000,000 acres planted with cereal rye, winter wheat, and other cover crops, pegging the annual cost of erosion at one-half to a billion dollars, and suggests property tax breaks or other incentives to absentee landlords to help defray the cost of planting cover crops, since about half of all farmland in the state is rented.

I don’t know whether it is fair or not, but overall I have the impression that Lang would use the position as a bully pulpit to set a faster tempo for change; he seems to feel a little more urgency, and by identifying the problem of soil health as key since its solution largely solves the problem of water quality as well, he would focus diffuse efforts at one point. Naig and Zumbach, as the relative insiders, would probably provide more continuity, whereas Ingels, whose experience is on the ground, so to speak, rather than in Des Moines, would probably provide less. The challenging trade climate could be a reason to prefer Gaesser, who would have some contacts in foreign nations, although the presence of Governor Branstad in Beijing means Iowa is well represented there in any case. Farmers having trouble deciding could favor the candidate whose background is most similar to their own, or who lives in their part of the state, on the ground that the man in question will understand their situation better.

Unless one candidate receives 35% of the vote next Tuesday, the nominee will be chosen by the delegates to the state convention, but in that case we would not have to wait long to find out who the nominee is, since the state convention takes place on the second Saturday thereafter (16 June).