Friday, May 25, 2007

Northey sees dynamic times ahead for agriculture (Part 1 of 2)

Now that he is settled into his new role as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey sees an exciting and dynamic future for Iowa's farm economy.

He has served almost five months of his first term so far, and his first legislative session is behind him. Northey, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake, sat down with the Iowa Independent on Thursday at his office to discuss the outlook for Iowa's farm products.

Northey comes to the office at a time when Iowa agriculture has intersected with the national debate on energy policy. He sees significant potential for growth in proven renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, as well as growth in new technologies like cellulosic ethanol.

"There's probably been as much attention on agriculture in our legislative session, and from non-ag folks, as what there's been at almost any time for decades," said Northey. "Certainly there was a lot of discussion across the street on ag activities, around renewable fuels, around livestock, around DDGs, around being able to get the full advantage of this opportunity we have right now."

The fact that Northey is a Republican serving with a Democratic-led Legislature and a Democratic governor has not caused any real divisions involving agriculture policy. "It's a great time to be secretary of agriculture," said Northey. "As a Republican, with a Democratic legislative leadership and Democratic governor and lieutenant governor, we got along very well on the things that we all thought needed to be done. For me, the nice thing is it's a bipartisan, kind of nonpartisan effort, because whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you can see the opportunities in agriculture right now. And we're seeing huge investments. We're seeing in the state somewhere between $2- and $3 billion last year invested in ag processing, mostly ethanol and biodiesel plants. We're seeing some livestock increases, some dairy, some new cattle feeding going in. It's a very exciting and dynamic time in agriculture."

Presidential politics

Though Iowa plays an important role in the presidential nomination process, Northey said he won't be choosing a favorite candidate or making any endorsement any time soon. "I'm focusing on agriculture, and I look at myself maybe more as a source to those candidates about agriculture," said Northey. "And I'm willing to talk to any of them about what's going on in agriculture in Iowa--what issues we ought to be looking at, what's important to Iowa folks on agriculture. And I'd rather talk to all of them rather than just pick one of them. I don't know what an endorsement means anyway. I don't know if I picked one then if anybody'd care anyway," he joked.

Northey said that it is important for Iowans to make agricultural issues a part of the debate in the Iowa caucuses. "I think we do have an advantage in that energy is a big part of the debate," he said. "Because of oil prices. Because of Iraq. Agriculture right now is involved in the energy side of the debate, and will be part of the Iowa caucus discussion."

Outlook for this year's crops

With all the new demand created by the renewable fuels industry, a bumper corn and soybean crop this year would be extremely helpful in relieving some pressure on that demand. After several challenging weeks of wet weather around Iowa, most of the crops are now planted. But certain areas of the state have been hit hard.

"We still have some pockets out there that still don't have all the corn in they need or all the beans in," said Northey. "I'm just hearing today that there were some areas over the last couple of days that had another five inches of rain, like in the Shenandoah area where they were already wet. So there are some pockets that aren't finished, but most of the planting is done."

"Overall the weather has been good," he said. "We've had good emergence, good conditions for the stuff that's in the ground. So I feel good about where we're at right now. Of course, what really makes a bean crop is August. What really makes a corn crop is pollination and that late fill, so, we have a long ways to go. I think, with the demand that we have for ethanol, a growing demand, everybody wants a good crop. We all know we need a good crop this year and we can use it up. We need it for our livestock industry to make sure that we have enough corn to go around."

Meeting the demand has been "a real challenge," he said. "One of the things that's been good for the livestock industry is, while we have higher-priced feed, their market prices are on the upper end of their range, and so they've been able to absorb it. The real challenge is going to be if they have changes in their market prices. If cattle get off of $100, if hogs go back under $50, then they have real challenges trying to feed three-and-a-half dollar corn to them. So for everybody's sake, we need a good crop."

In the next part of this article, Northey discussed his views on some of the environmental concerns involving agriculture in Iowa. Click here for Part 2 of this article.

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