Remembering Bill Northey, a great agricultural and conservation leader

Bill Northey speaks to the crowd at one of IAWA’s field days near Okoboji, Iowa.

By Dan Looker 

Energetic. Empathetic. Eclectic.  

These are a few words some would use to describe Bill Northey, one of Iowa’s most consequential and admired agricultural leaders. Many were shocked by his death last February. On Monday, May 27, 2024 he would have been 65.  

Last winter, Northey was CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. Before that, he was Undersecretary of Agriculture in a newly reorganized USDA post that administered crop insurance, farm programs and conservation. He was ready for that job after being elected Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture three times. And as president of a national group for state ag secretaries, Northey knew leaders and farmers from across the nation.  

“He definitely had good experience preparing for that federal role,” says Ben Gleason, a fellow Agribusiness Association staffer who administers the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council. Both men began working at the Association in April of 2022. “I started three days ahead of Bill and he always joked that he was the rookie,” Gleason says. 

In all of this, Northey was renowned for his empathy, 

“He was such a caring, wonderful person and a great listener,” says Ray Gaesser, a long time friend who farms with his son and daughter-in-law near Corning, Iowa.  

Gaesser recalls sharing ideas about cover crops with Northey, at the time he was running his own family’s farm near Spirit Lake, Iowa. “He was using cover crops. We talked a lot about that, because so was I,” Gaesser says.  

His empathy wasn’t limited to kind words. 

Matt Russell, a farmer from Lacona, Iowa, and the current state executive director for USDA Farm Service Agency, says that Northey arranged for his church to provide land for Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Global Greens project. The project allowed recent immigrants from Asia, Africa and elsewhere to grow produce for a farmers’ market.  

“He just went to work and made the connection to his church and provided the land for Global Greens,” Russell says.  

Russell recalls Northey speaking later at a Global Greens fund raiser. Northey looked out at the recent immigrants in the audience and told them that Iowa was built by waves of immigrant farmers. They are now part of that history, Northey said. 

Northey’s interests were eclectic. They ranged from helping farmers find niche outlets for specialty crops through Innovative Growers, a group he co-founded, to advocating for the ethanol industry as president of the Iowa and National Corn Growers Associations. As a writer for Successful Farming magazine, I once followed Northey when he took a group of Iowa Farmers to California to visit farmer cooperatives that bargained with processors to set a base price for their tomatoes and peaches. 

Conservation was a key among Northey’s wide interests. 

Early in his career, he served 8 years on his local soil and water conservation district board. 

According to Gleason and Gaesser, when Northey was Iowa’s agricultural secretary he became a national leader in developing ways to manage the farm nutrients in the Mississippi River basin that contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico (sometimes called a “dead zone–where aquatic life is starved of oxygen by decaying algae).  

“Bill was always so kind to everyone and made time for anyone. He knew literally thousands of Iowan and American farmers, conservationists, and agribusiness professionals on a first name basis. He was so outgoing and gregarious, and a natural father figure to many. He was truly one of a kind,” said Sean McMahon, Former IAWA Executive Director, who collaborated with Northey on several projects.

He co-chaired the Hypoxia Task Force, a group of state and federal officials that helped develop strategies to reduce those nutrients, including Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Gleason says. 

”He was leading that until he left for Washington (to be Under Secretary of Agriculture),” Gleason says. 

Adds Gaesser: “Bill was one of the negotiators, along with other secretaries of agriculture in the Mississippi River region. He was a leader in that.” 

Gleason recalled that as Iowa’s Agriculture Secretary, Northey also worked to help establish his state’s Water Quality Initiative (WQI), which provides state-level funds for using cover crops, reducing tillage, managing fertilizer and watershed-level work to reduce nutrient runoff. 

“When I worked for the [Iowa] Corn Growers, I knew that other states were pretty envious of Iowa’s lead” with the WQI, Gleason adds. 

Northey also explained to the public how farmers are working to meet the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Gaesser says. 

“Not only did he do this as Agriculture Secretary, but he lived it as a farmer,” Gaesser says. “He started growing cover crops and managing fertilizer.” Northey also experimented with ways of reducing tillage. 

Matt Russell agrees that conservation was one of Northey’s strongest interests. 

“If we were talking farming, about his farm and our farm, conservation was always part of the conversation,” Russell says. 

Even though Northey spent much of his career in public life, he was neither partisan nor confrontational. 

After Northey left his job as a USDA undersecretary in the Republican administration of Donald Trump, Russell was appointed to head Iowa’s USDA Farm Service Agency by Democrat President Joe Biden.  

“One of the first people who reached out to congratulate me on my appointment was Bill,” Russell recalls. 

Senator Chuck Grassley remembers the months of delay between the nomination of Northey to become undersecretary and the approval by the Senate. That floor vote was blocked by Senator Ted Cruz of the oil-producing state, Texas. Cruz held up the process for a while to pressure Congress to change requirements to blend ethanol into gasoline. 

“Bill always said he was unbothered by the politics of his nomination,” Grassley says. “Standing up for the farmers and ethanol was more important than his own personal advancement. And I think that tells you the kind of a guy that Bill was. He just had to wait a long time to get into that position. But once he got in it, he was an outstanding spokesman for agricultural conservation.” 

Those who knew Northey remember that self-effacing quality, and Northey’s love of networking. 

One time Gleason was at the Farm Progress Show with Northey. “You couldn’t walk ten feet without someone stopping to talk with him,” he recalls.  

“If you ever met Bill, he was your friend for life,” Gleason says. 

Gaesser agrees. 

“If he ran for office, whatever he ran for, he would have gotten elected in Iowa because people loved him,” Gaesser says.  

Published on May 23, 2024