Wallaces Farmer

Bill Northey lived a life of service

Iowa lost a great leader whom everyone could admire.

Rod Swoboda

February 20, 2024

5 Min Read
Bill Northey Iowa Secretary of Ag
AT WORK FOR USDA: Bill Northey was always ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. USDA staff greeted him on his first day on the job as a USDA undersecretary in February 2018. USDA

Attending the funeral of Bill Northey, who died unexpectedly at the age of 64 on Feb. 5, rekindled memories of this wonderful man. Amid the sadness of his passing, everyone was reminded of the good he did. Upon learning of Northey’s passing, tributes came from across Iowa and the nation for this champion of farmers and agriculture at the state and federal levels.

My favorite memory of Northey is when I attended the funeral of Iowa Master Farmer Tom Wall in May 2016 at West Branch, Iowa. It was a warm day, and the rural church was full of people. An overflow of attendees stood outside, looking in through the open doors. Ushers began hauling folding chairs on carts to the people outside. Northey was the first to rise up and help carry and set the chairs for those who were standing.

That’s Northey’s legacy — he lived a life of service. His legacy as a person always willing to help others will continue. Northey set a great example, and we all learned from him.

Farm roots, family values

Northey was an Iowa Master Farmer, Class of 2016, the same year Wall received the award. When I was editor of Wallaces Farmer, I interviewed Northey and his wife, Cindy, and wrote their Master Farmer article for the magazine. We talked about Northey being the fourth generation of his family to be named a Master Farmer. I said, “This will likely never happen again — four generations of a family receiving this award.”

And Northey was the fourth generation of his family to farm at Spirit Lake. Northey’s father, Wayne, who also farmed in Dickinson County, received the Master Farmer award in 1987. His father died at age 90 in December, and Northey give a thoughtful eulogy to honor his father at the funeral.

Northey’s greatest role in life, however, was as a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He is survived by his wife, Cindy; his mother, Margaret; daughters Jessica (Thomas) Meierotto, Emily (Eric) Brown and Katie (Eric) Mattson; and six grandchildren.

Life of service

Northey earned a degree in agricultural business from Iowa State University in 1981 and began farming. In 2004, he earned an MBA from Southwest Minnesota State University.

He served as president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and later the National Corn Growers Association. He also served in many other leadership roles, including Farm Service Agency state committee member, Ag Ventures Alliance board member, Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner, Dickinson County Farm Bureau president, and co-founder and president of Innovative Growers LLC, a farmer-owned specialty grain supply network

Northey was elected Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2006 and reelected in 2010 and 2014. He was president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in 2011-12. In 2018, he was appointed undersecretary for farm production and conservation at USDA, serving until 2021. Northey was CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa at the time of his death.

Dedicated mentor

In addition to his job, Northey shared his time and expertise as a volunteer. He was vice president of the Iowa Master Farmer Association this year.

“The state of Iowa and all of agriculture has lost a great leader,” says Steve Berger, a southeastern Iowa farmer and Iowa Master Farmer Association president. “Bill was a mentor and friend to everyone — good listener, hard worker. He fostered soil conservation and water quality improvement efforts, was dedicated to biofuels, and stayed in touch with farmers, listening to their concerns. He always advocated for Iowa.”

“As secretary, Bill had a tremendously positive impact on our state,” says Mike Naig, Northey’s successor as Iowa secretary of agriculture. “But his influence went well beyond our borders. Whether it was on issues like soil conservation, water quality, renewable energy, foreign animal disease preparedness or trade, Bill was respected nationally and internationally. Bill was smart and people looked toward his leadership on every issue he focused on. Bill was a friend and mentor to so many people in Iowa and across the country, including me.”

His door was always open

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen says Northey will be remembered not only for what he accomplished for Iowa, but also for how he did it.

“You always felt confident that Bill did what he did on behalf of Iowa agriculture, not for personal gain,” she says. “Equally important was Bill’s special ways of connecting with people. He truly went out of his way to help others.”

Charlie Hurburgh, longtime ISU Extension agricultural engineer, describes Northey as, “The definition of a servant leader. He could find a solution no matter how far apart people seemed to be on issues. He will be missed.”

“Bill touched so many lives, so positively and impactfully, and so many acres too,” says Dan Robison, dean of the ISU College of Agriculture. “He was very accomplished but surely had more that he wanted to do. We must all take up that work now.”

Northey was a conservationist and truly cared for the land. He had a strong faith in God, deep roots in agriculture and cared about people. That’s how I describe Bill Northey.

Donations accepted in Northeys memory

The family requests donations in Bill Northey’s memory be made to GoServ Global, 310 East Broadway St., Eagle Grove, IA 50533.

Contributions can also be made to the Bill Northey Memorial Fund in the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University either online at foundation.iastate.edu/northey or by mail to ISU Foundation, 2505 University Blvd., P.O. Box 2230, Ames, IA 50010.

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda

Rod Swoboda is a former editor of Wallaces Farmer and is now retired.

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