Reynolds talking to potential successors to Ag Secretary Northey

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Gov. Kim Reynolds has given no indication when she might name a new secretary of agriculture, but has been talking to people about the job.

Secretary Bill Northey, who is in his third term at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be an undersecretary at the United States Department of Agriculture. Northey, who has previously expressed interest in a federal post, said he will not resign until he’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Given the pace of Senate approval of the president’s nominees, Reynolds expects to have “some time” to consider who to name to fill Northey’s post. A number of names — all Republicans and all farmers — have surfaced as possible replacements for Northey. Among them are former Iowa House member Annette Sweeney of Alden, Sen. Dan Zumbach of Ryan, Rep. Pat Grassley of New Hartford and Sen. Tim Kapucian of Keystone, who could not immediately be reached for comment.

“I’ve had a couple conversations with governor about it,” Zumbach, 56, said Wednesday between meetings on housing development and soybean production. “I’d certainly be available and honored” if appointed to fill out Northey’s term that runs through early 2019. The position will be on the statewide ballot in 2018.

Zumbach, whose “heart, soul and passion has always been in agriculture,” said serving as state secretary of agriculture would be an “opportunity to share my lifetime of experience to guide Iowa agriculture in a good direction.”

Zumbach, a former West Delaware school board member, and his wife, Michelle, have four children.

Likewise, Grassley, 34, would be “honored to be considered.”

“I’m interested in any way I can serve Iowans,” said Sweeney, who is president of the Iowa affiliate of American Agri-Women. “We need someone to take the wheel and be as great an advocate for ag as Bill Northey has been — and is.”

Reynolds’ appointee will have to clear a high bar, the governor said at her weekly news conference Tuesday.

“Bill’s done a great job and I’m proud of the work that he’s done,” Reynolds said about Northey, who had considered running for governor in 2018. “Anybody who would emulate what Bill has been able to do would be a great person to appoint to that position.”

Sweeney, who was sorting cattle Wednesday, called Northey “the best” secretary of agriculture because “he brought his heart to the job.”

That makes living up to Northey’s performance as a “positive advocate and role model for agriculture” the hardest part of the job, said Zumbach, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“He’s done so many things well,” he said. “If I could maintain his legacy and have someone mistake me for Bill Northey that would be the biggest compliment I could ever have.”

Grassley, who was heading out to the farm with his son Wednesday morning, said his qualifications would include being involved in a family farm operation with his parents and grandfather, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. He’s also chairman of the Appropriations Committee and previously chaired the House Agriculture Committee. He and his wife, Amanda, have three children.

He’s not holding his breath for the appointment because “in this day and age in Washington I don’t think you should really assume anything is going to happen.”

“I’d be honored to consider, but at the end of the day that’s obviously a decision of the governor if everything with Secretary Northey moves forward,” he said.

In addition to the traditional focus of crop and livestock production, those mentioned as possible Northey successors talked about the need to address soil conservation and water quality.

Sweeney also saw extending access to broadband to rural areas as “huge — that needs to happen.”

She and her husband, David, raise cattle, corn and beans. They have two adult sons.

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