Norwood says Iowa ag secretary should focus on food, land and water

DES MOINES — The Democratic Party’s nominee for state ag secretary says the Iowa Department of Agriculture needs to represent both producers and consumers.

“We have to have an eye on the world and where the world is going and maybe think about the secretary of agriculture as the secretary of food, land and water,” John Norwood said on The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair.

Norwood is a business consultant and currently serving as a Soil and Water Commissioner in Polk County. Norwood called Iowa’s ag industry “tremendously productive,” but he said there’s an imbalance and the state’s voluntary approach to reducing farm chemical run-off isn’t working.

“We send a billion pounds of nitrates down our Mississippi and Missouri River systems and into our reservoirs like Saylorville Lake here and that creates major drinking water issues, water recreation issues, access to water issues,” Norwood said. “Over half of our state waters are impaired.”

Norwood’s first job out of college was at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority which handled drinking water and wastewater. Norwood has not proposed specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus application on cropland. During his State Fair appearance, Norwood said “innovative thinking” is needed to improve Iowa’s water quality and to reduce top soil loss.

“We have among the richest soils in the world here in Iowa and in some cases we’ve lost a third of the top soil, ten times the rate of loss that we make in any particular year,” Norwood said. “That’s unsustainable.”

If Iowa is to “weather” more frequent floods and droughts, Norwood said Iowa needs healthy soil and more acres planted with cover crops like oats, barley, rye and hay. “That might mean bringing more livestock, outdoor livestock which are important to soil health,” Norwood said.

And Norwood argued Iowa needs to dedicate more ag land to crops that aren’t corn and soybeans.

“We should be thinking about how do we feed 3.2 million Iowans and the 80 million people who live within a day’s drive Iowa,” Norwood said, “because places like California, which supply more than half of our fruits and vegetables is facing…drought.”

Norwood worked with cattle ranchers, nut growers and other farmers in California before settling in Iowa in 2002.

Current Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig, a Republican, has been in office since the spring of 2018 and in this year’s election he’s seeking a second full term.