Iowa’s next secretary of agriculture will be a key player in the ongoing debate over how best to protect Iowa’s water and soil resources. The Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship led by the secretary administers multiple programs intended to help farmers put conservation practices in place to reduce runoff that carries nitrates and phosphorus into waterways. The secretary also likely will lead the way on new initiatives in the future.
We’ve editorialized often on water quality efforts in recent years, so those issues were at the top of our list as we sized up current Republican Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Democrat Tim Gannon and Libertarian Party nominee Rick Stewart.
After sitting down with all three candidates, we see Gannon’s commitment to conservation and his understanding of its critical importance to the economic future of agriculture as stronger than that of his rivals. He receives our endorsement.
Gannon, who farms with his father and cousin near Mingo in central Iowa, favors raising the state sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. It’s been eight years since voters overwhelmingly approved creation of the fund, but a sales tax increase to fill it has languished at the Statehouse. Naig opposes filling the trust fund, opting instead to back a far less ambitious approach approved this year by lawmakers, a plan that lacks measurable goals and meaningful bench marks for reducing pollutants.
Gannon, who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Secretary Tom Vilsack, argues state trust fund dollars for water and soil efforts approaching $120 million annually could be matched by federal funds. He’d also look to private-sector manufacturers and processors interested in encouraging responsible farming and sustainability efforts along their supply chains.
Gannon would continue seeking to partner with farmers through voluntary efforts, although he contends water quality monitoring, with public disclosure of results, must be expanded to test the value of farm-based conservation efforts in watersheds. He argues farmers and landowners, aided by new resources and beefed-up research at Iowa State University, can be sold on the notion that keeping soil nutrients on the land will make their farms more profitable in the long run.
We hear echoes of Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor, as Gannon explains his holistic approach to rural development. He envisions a revitalized rural Iowa built by marketing what farmers grow through global trade, adding value to commodities through expanded, innovative manufacturing, and sustaining natural resources through conservation.
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In recent years, it’s become clear that large agricultural interest groups have had the secretary of agriculture’s ear. No doubt they’ll continue to have a prominent voice. But we see in Gannon a chance to elect a secretary who will listen to new voices and constituencies with a stake in the future of farming, rural communities and all of Iowa. We welcome the chance for a broader conversation.
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