Former Iowa Ag Secretary and Trump administration USDA leader Bill Northey has died, leaving behind numerous family and friends, and a legacy of farm policy leadership. He was 64.
The Agribusiness Association of Iowa (AAI), where Northey was CEO, announced the news Monday.
“The state of Iowa, and all of agriculture, has lost a great leader who has left his mark on future generations and will be greatly missed,” the group said. “Bill was a tireless advocate for agriculture and a beloved leader for the entire AAI staff and organization. As we mourn the loss of our close colleague, we also extend our prayers for his family in this difficult time.”
Northey’s career included 11 years as Iowa’s Ag Secretary, a USDA undersecretary tenure during the Trump administration and his most recent role at AAI. But before he held statewide office in Iowa, Northey — a fourth-generation farmer — was involved in the Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District and Iowa Farm Bureau, and was the president of the National Corn Growers Association in 1995-96.
As Iowa’s Ag Secretary, Northey guided the state through a host of issues including water quality litigation with the Des Moines Water Works and animal disease outbreaks like porcine epidemic diahrrea virus and highlypathogenic avian influenza. During this time, he shared his knowledge with farmers at the 2015 National Strip-Tillage Conference, giving a presentation on applying science and technology to conservation tillage practices.
Northey was president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture from 2011-12 and was a member of the group with fellow future USDA undersecretaries Greg Ibach of Nebraska and Ted McKinney of Indiana.
McKinney, now NASDA’s CEO, described Northey as an “iconic” Iowa ag secretary and a “stellar” USDA undersecretary.
“Bill Northey was my good friend as he was to so very many others,” McKinney, who served as trade undersecretary during the Trump administration, said in an email to Agri-Pulse. “We have lost a titan in U.S. agriculture. All of NASDA expresses sorrow for his loss and our love and support to his wife Cindy, and his family. It is a sad day for U.S. agriculture.”
After serving three terms as Iowa’s Ag Secretary, Northey joined the Trump administration as its Undersecretary for Farm Production in Conservation in 2018. His nomination was slowed by nearly seven months of Capitol Hill and Trump administration squabbling, leading former Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue to quip “we waited a long time for a good man” upon Northey’s swearing in.
Steve Censky, who heads up the American Soybean Association but was USDA's deputy secretary during the Trump administration, said Northey's passing is “a loss for all of us in agriculture.”
“Bill was such a kind, smart, and dedicated public servant and advocate for American agriculture. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Bill closely and will miss him greatly,” he said.
“Bill always put the interests of producers first,” Censky added. “He was tireless in his efforts, and USDA operations are improved today because of him. He was deeply respected and admired by all those who worked with him — both career employees and political appointees. He will be missed.”
Northey’s time at USDA was marked with the development and implementation of several ad hoc farm policy programs including disaster packages, two versions of the Market Facilitation Program spurred by the administration’s trade war with China and the 2020 Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
“As a farmer, I thought 'I would love for somebody to be driving in their pickup on the way home, hear the news that something's happening … and be able to do the math before they got home and know whether they could pay for a lawn mower, a tractor or a farm,” he said.
Ibach, who headed up USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs mission area at the time, worked closely with Northey on many of those programs and described him as a “gentleman” and a “good team player.”
Northey, Ibach told Agri-Pulse, was “always very knowledgeable about agriculture and the current issues that were facing agriculture.
“I think he was a great asset to not only Iowa but during his service as undersecretary. He served very well in Washington, D.C.,” Ibach added.
Mike Naig, who currently serves as Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture, said “Bill was a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a farmer. He loved Iowa and he loved Iowa agriculture. His curiosity, care for others, and love of learning made him a leader that everyone could admire. Bill brought a farmer’s work ethic to every aspect of his life, and he was tireless in promoting our state, its people and our agriculture.”
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said he was “extremely saddened” by the news. He and Northey knew each other for decades, Vilsack said on social media, and he had known Northey as “a lifelong champion, personally and professionally, for Iowa's and all of America's farmers.”
“My wife Christie and I, as well as the many employees who worked with him at USDA, extend our deepest condolences to Bill's family, who also lost Bill's father, Wayne Northey, just a few weeks ago,” Vilsack added. “Bill's colleagues, the Iowa agriculture community, and so many who knew him will feel the absence of such a passionate, knowledgeable and devoted leader for a long time to come.”
According to Northey's obituary, the family will hold a visitation in the Oman Family Youth Inn at the Iowa State Fairgrounds Friday, Feb. 9 from 4-7 p.m. Services will be held at Valley Church in West Des Moines Saturday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m., followed by a meal at the Oman Youth Inn. The service can be viewed online here.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to GoServ Global or the Bill Northey Memorial Fund in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. Contributions can be made online or mailed to the Iowa State University Foundation, 2505 University Blvd, P.O. Box 2230, Ames, IA 50010.