Iowa voters will choose either Republican Mike Naig or Democrat Tim Gannon for Iowa secretary of agriculture in the general election this November. Naig was appointed to fill Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey’s term following Northey’s move to USDA earlier this year. Gannon, a former USDA official in the Obama administration who farms near Mingo, is the challenger.
Naig served as Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture for almost five years before taking Northey’s place in March. Wallaces Farmer asked Naig why he wants to be elected. “I’ve had time to think this through,” he said. He said he was working with his dad on the family farm in northwest Iowa, and his wife and three young sons were with him that weekend when he made the decision.
“Agriculture has meant so much to our family. I’m looking at the fifth generation of our family and in a position where I can help provide a bright future and opportunity for the next generation in agriculture across the state,” he said.
Naig said he’s passionate about working on the issues and knocking down barriers that are holding agriculture back. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to serve today and excited about the chance to serve a full term.”
Key issues facing Iowa agriculture
What are the three biggest issues facing Iowa agriculture? “Economic uncertainty currently abounds,” Naig said. “International trade is a concern. We need to make sure we have markets for our products overseas and here in the U.S. This is a corn and soybean state, but it also has a tremendous value-added agriculture in livestock and renewable fuels. We must make sure those industries thrive in Iowa.”
Farmers fear the tariff war between China and the U.S. and tough talk on trade by President Donald Trump will push already depressed prices even lower. While many agree China needs to be held accountable, many believe farmers are shouldering too heavy of a load in the ongoing battle.
“We need to hold our trading partners accountable, and farmers are bearing the brunt,” Naig said. To provide some relief, the Trump administration has created a $12 billion financial aid package to help farmers. “But Iowa farmers want trade, not aid,” he said.
To solve the crisis facing farmers, Naig is focused on a two-part solution: improving markets both inside and outside the U.S. for Iowa crops and livestock products, and pushing for nationwide access to E15 year-round to boost corn prices.
Another priority is to stay laser-focused on water quality and soil health. “We must have a long-term view,” Naig said. “Handing out the Century and Heritage Farm awards at the Iowa State Fair reminded me of what it takes to keep a farm in a family for a long time. And what it will take to keep farms productive for the next 100 to 150 years. It’s critical that we preserve our soil and water.”
Workforce is a third priority. “We must help farmers and businesses attract and retain the talent they need to grow,” he says. “We need to retain young people in our communities, to draw people into agriculture. We also need functioning guest worker programs to take advantage of all the opportunities we have.”
Iowa needs healthy ag economy
Why does Tim Gannon want to be Iowa secretary of agriculture? Gannon said he wants ag to prosper and protect soil and water. He grew up in central Iowa where his dad owned the John Deere dealership in Colfax. He saw how farmers were hit hard by the farm financial crisis of the 1980s.
Some lost their farms; others had to get a job off the farm to survive. Gannon said he saw how the bad economy hurt small businesses, and learned quickly that if farmers weren’t buying tractors, implement dealers weren’t selling tractors. “And people employed by ag manufacturers weren’t working. It was a triple whammy for the Iowa economy,” he said.
Gannon worked all eight years at USDA for Secretary Tom Vilsack. His first job there was helping administer rural economic development programs. Next, he worked in Vilsack’s office. The final two years he was associate administrator of the Risk Management Agency, helping oversee the Federal Crop Insurance Program.
Before the 2016 election, Gannon and his wife decided they were coming back to Iowa. He wanted to help his dad farm. “It’s not a huge farm,” he said, “it’s 950 acres, no livestock, all crops. It’s been in the family for 130 years, and we’d like to keep it there.”
If elected Iowa secretary of agriculture, Gannon said he’ll do everything he can to help make sure farmers can be profitable. “That’s very difficult now with tariffs and trade wars going on. Also, EPA’s biofuels policy has held down corn and soybean prices.”
Gannon wants to restore markets and raise prices by increasing trade. “We also need to find more value-added uses for corn and beans, and perhaps grow other crops that have new market potential,” he said. “It’s important to process and refine what we grow in Iowa to add value, create wealth and create jobs here.”
Labor issues affect agriculture
To address labor needs on farms and in processing plants, “we need federal comprehensive labor reform,” Gannon said. “There are Latino immigrants and refugees from Africa who are here filling these jobs, and more are interested. We must make small towns and rural areas attractive for young families. We need to make sure our high schools and community colleges are offering the skills and courses employers need for workers.”
Gannon is calling on the state of Iowa to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Recent projections show some parts of Iowa will be without its precious topsoil in as little as 40 to 50 years. Researchers and scientists estimate the price tag for healthier soil and cleaner water to be in the billions of dollars. Under Senate File 512, at most $23.5 million would be spent on conservation per year.
“This is not a challenge we can approach piecemeal, but rather, one we must tackle head on,” Gannon said. “Iowans across the state know this, as 62% of the electorate approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 to establish the trust fund. Funded through the three-eighths of a cent sales tax, this constitutionally protected resource would be dedicated to conservation practices that have shown results in improving soil health and water quality.”