WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2017 - Bill Northey, the Iowa agriculture secretary nominated to oversee USDA’s farm and conservation programs, promised senators he would work to protect crop insurance, improve customer service and assist farmers in addressing water quality issues.

Northey (pictured on the left, above) assured the Senate Agriculture Committee that he would try to “make sure all producers have the risk management tools that they need.” He called crop insurance the “most important part of the farm safety net.”

A second nominee, Nebraska Agriculture Director Greg Ibach (pictured on the right, above) , told the committee that he knew it would be a “difficult task” to balance competing responsibilities as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs -- promoting agricultural production while also overseeing agencies that regulate various industry sectors.

Ibach also expressed support for developing local and regional food systems and promised to promote market opportunities for organic foods and protect "the integrity associated with the organic seal.” That is likely a reference to recent revelations of feed grain imports that were fraudulently labeled as organic. He also pledged to listen to the “many diverse voices of agriculture” across the country.

Ibach said his decisions would be guided by how well the department’s “regulatory programs and promotional activities improve the opportunities for my neighbors in Sumner (the Nebraska town where his family’s grain and cow-calf operation is located) but also for Americans across the country.”

Both nominees steered clear of making specific policy commitments. 

Several committee members, including John Thune, R-S.D., pressed him to support increased enrollments in the Conservation Reserve Program but he promised only to work with Congress as it considers revising rules for the program in the next farm bill. “We’re going to implement the … directions you provide us,” he said.

Northey, a corn and soybean farmer, also wouldn’t commit to supporting liberalized restrictions on haying and grazing CRP lands.

Northey, who discussed his work in Iowa to increase the use of cover crops to curb farm runoff and improve water quality, praised the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which uses federal conservation funding to leverage funding from states and local sources to address environmental challenges.

Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whether dairy farmers needed new federal assistance, he said he would “see what kind of programs would work better.”

Neither nominee faces any trouble getting confirmed, but they won’t get to USDA before later this month. The committee is expected to take up the nominations after the Senate returns from next week’s recess. Both Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said after the hearing that the two nominees are eminently qualified.

Both nominees "have valuable ‘boots-on-the-ground’ experience," Roberts said. "They are both farmers. They know what weighs on the minds of farmers and ranchers, the challenges they face on a daily basis, and the focus and drive they put into their life’s work."

Northey would oversee the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. NRCS was added to his mission area under a reorganization Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced this spring.

Northey said that adding NRCS to his mission area would help improve service to farmers.

Ibach would be responsible for the Agricultural Marketing Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration. GIPSA will be merged with AMS under a plan Perdue announced last month.

Northey will be particularly important in working with Congress as the new farm bill is developed in coming months, while Ibach will face a number of major regulatory issues when he gets to the department, including GMO labeling requirements and Obama-era rules regulating livestock and poultry marketing practices and organic animal standards.

Perdue said in a statement that the two nominees “will bring experience and integrity to USDA the moment they walk in the door.”

Ibach's work in Nebraska has prepared him to address the needs of American agriculture, particularly regarding the cattle industry, Perdue said.

Northey “will give us a fourth generation corn and soybean farmer who knows the issues facing producers across the nation.  I look forward to their speedy passage through the committee and floor votes, and urge the Senate to act on other nominees awaiting approval as well,” Perdue said.