Get ready for a competitive GOP secretary of agriculture race

Craig Lang didn’t wait for Governor Kim Reynolds to decide. He is running for Iowa secretary of agriculture, no matter whom Reynolds picks to replace Bill Northey.

In his first comments to journalists about his campaign, Lang advocated more crop diversity and better land management practices, asserting that the dominant approach to farming in Iowa is not “sustainable.” That’s an unusual message for a Republican. Stranger still is hearing a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation talk about soil health in terms more often heard from environmental experts than from Big Ag heavyweights.

Though he’s a first-time candidate, Lang has plenty of political connections and should have little trouble raising enough money for a credible statewide primary campaign against State Representative Pat Grassley or other contenders.

Best known as a longtime Farm Bureau leader, Lang also was on the Iowa Board of Regents for six years, part of that time as board president. After Governor Terry Branstad nominated him for a second term in 2013, most Iowa Senate Democrats voted against his confirmation for a variety of reasons.

Lang has served on other state government bodies as well. From his official bio at the Prairie Strategy Group website:

Lang is recognized nationally and internationally as a consultant for rural economic development, consensus and opportunity building. He is also recognized as a down to earth public speech writer and speaker willing to give his audience the truth.

Lang was one of the longest serving leaders of both the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF), where he served as president for a ten-year period from 2001 through 2011, and the FBL Financial Group, where he served as Chairman of the Board for a concurrent term. While working with the Ministry of Agriculture on agriculture bio-technology in China, Lang signed the first ever NGO memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology on behalf of the Iowa Farm Bureau. Craig chaired the Iowa Chronic Care Consortium. He was lead director on the Iowa Telecom Board, director of the GROWMARK, Inc. Board. In addition, Lang served as chairman of the Grow Iowa Values Fund and vice chair of the Iowa Economic Development Board under Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack.

Iowa’s current Secretary of Agriculture Northey will be confirmed soon to an undersecretary position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, having cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee last week. Unlike Sam Clovis, whom President Donald Trump has nominated for a different USDA job, Northey is obviously qualified and has attracted no opposition from Senate Democrats or stakeholder groups.

Once Northey resigns, Reynolds will appoint a new secretary of agriculture. Pat Grassley has had his eye on Northey’s job for a long time, and Senator Chuck Grassley has made clear he wants the governor to choose his grandson. But Reynolds is considering several other possibilities.

Lately the Des Moines rumor mill has suggested the governor may be leaning toward a placeholder such as Iowa’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, rather than giving any likely 2018 candidate the advantages of incumbency.

Lang filed his campaign’s statement of organization in late September, but few people noticed. I heard the news yesterday from Donnelle Eller’s story for the Des Moines Register. Mike Mahaffey, a former Iowa GOP state chair and nominee for Congress in 1996, is Lang’s campaign treasurer, signaling to potential Republican donors that this candidacy is serious.

Lang was an early endorser of Rand Paul for president and later hosted an event for Paul at his dairy farm. Paul is something of an iconoclast in his party, and Lang indicated yesterday that he will take an unconventional approach to his own campaign. From Eller’s story for the Register:

Lang said he’s a strong believer in using cover crops and adding diversity to Iowa’s dominant corn and soybean rotation to help address the state’s water quality problems. […]

“I want farmers to lead the discussion about cleaner water, working with our urban friends,” Lang said.

Iowa growers need to find crops, in addition to growing corn and soybeans, that bring value, he said. […]

“I believe diversification in agriculture is the real answer,” he said. “I don’t believe rotating half our state to soybeans and half to corn every year is sustainable.”

“I’d like to create wealth through healthy Iowa soils,” said Lang, who also served on the state’s economic development board.

From James Q. Lynch’s report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette

“You take the work the University of Iowa is doing on water, Iowa State University is doing on soil health, the research University of Northern Iowa is doing on native prairies, all of that is really important,” said Lang, an ISU graduate. “I think we could bring all of that together to create value for Iowa.”

Lang, 66, farms 1,200 acres with his father, brother and sons near Brooklyn, including land that has been in his family since 1860. For the past 15 years, Lang said, they used cover crops to protect and enrich the soil between harvest and planting.

“I’ve seen the tremendous increase in soil health because of the diversity of our agriculture with livestock, rotating crops of legumes, meadow, corn and beans,” Lang said. […]

He estimated cover crops are planted on about 600,000 acres of Iowa farmland. His goal would be to increase that to 5 million acres or more.

“We know that will increase productivity of the soil and be cash back in our pockets,” he said.

I don’t trust any former leader of the Farm Bureau to make soil conservation and water quality a priority if elected to the state’s top job in agriculture. However, in fairness to Lang, he did come out in favor of requiring farmers to comply with conservation standards as a condition for receiving federal crop insurance. That stance probably cost him the Farm Bureau presidency in 2011.

Moreover, it can’t hurt to have a Republican campaigning statewide on the message that the current way of doing business is unsustainable. For years, Northey has given us happy talk about how Iowa’s farmers are fantastic stewards of the land, despite zero progress toward reducing agricultural runoff that pollutes our waterways. I can’t remember any prominent Iowa Republican questioning the dominant corn-and-beans farming model.

Lang told Lynch he “expects a crowded primary field.” While many Republicans aspire to be secretary of agriculture, I’m skeptical others will take on the Grassley machine, assuming Pat Grassley leaves his Iowa House seat to run for statewide office.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Democrats do not have a declared candidate for secretary of agriculture yet. Iowa Starting Line posted this summer that former USDA official Tim Gannon is considering the race. I’ve heard of efforts to recruit Wayne Gieselman, who led the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division until Branstad forced him out in 2011. Gieselman gained enemies in the agriculture sector after the DNR tried to enact air quality standards for factory farms. In recent years he has worked as a doorman for the Iowa legislature.

Top image: Photo of Craig Lang from his LinkedIn page.

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  • That's what we've got?

    I hate to sound so negative, but the end of this post really highlights for me the problem Iowa Democrats have gotten themselves into. On the Republican side, two well-funded candidates with better name recognition than your average Sec. of Ag aspirant. On the Dem side. . . a rumored but not committed Tim Gannon and some guy named Gieselman, neither of whom have been heard of by more than a handful of Iowans.

    Not sure I like our odds.

    We no longer have anyone who is visible on these issues like the Terry family used to be. Oddly, some of our best spokespersons on modern ag issues are city folks who come at it not as farmers but as environmentalists: Bill Stowe and Rob Hogg (hey, if the Senate doesn’t appreciate him, maybe this would be a good role?) I’d just as soon see Larry Cleverly run. At least he starts with a decent network and he’d be colorful.

    • Alas...

      …I have to basically agree with you. I’m also curious as to whether Iowa has ever had a genuinely conservation-minded Secretary of Agriculture of either party.

  • Lang candidacy

    I really appreciate all this good information and history about Craig Lang. It has certainly sparked some memories. And now for the rant.

    It’s both interesting and significant that Lang says he wants to see Iowa have at least five million acres of cover crops. Twelve million acres of cover crops is about the minimum needed to help reach the water quality goals of the official Iowa Nutrient Procrastination Strategy, oops, Reduction Strategy. That’s according to the Strategy itself.

    So already Lang is setting a goal that is far short of what Iowa needs. And he is setting that low goal for the one farm conservation practice that is both relatively inexpensive and is considered most effective at improving both soil health and water quality. And cover crops also, according to good new research, directly benefit farmers economically in the long run, much more than some edge-of-field practices like wetlands.

    So the takeaway is that Lang is already, this early, setting an unjustifiably-low bar for farm conservation while using conservation language. In other words, he is talking like the Iowa Farm Bureau.

    Per another of his comments, Iowa already has “farmers leading the discussion about cleaner water.” Bill Northey alone has blown enough hot air about water quality to float the entire National Hot Air Balloon Festival. What Iowa needs are actual policies that would actually result in clean water, and also actual funding that would do the same.

    And when it comes to policies and funding, my unhappy bet is that Lang would merely exceed Bill Northey in hot air emissions per the first, and try to shift as much money as possible from other programs to give directly to farmers with as little accountability as politically possible per the second.

    As for his actually strengthening the Strategy by adding badly-needed standards, goals, deadlines, and requirements, that is highly unlikely. And the term “sustainability” has been grabbed and misused by Big Ag so often that I have conservationist friends who try to avoid using it now.

    The conservation requirements for getting crop insurance subsidies are minimal and poorly enforced, to the point that they mean little for conservation progress. It was certainly good that Lang supported their survival. But the fact that he lost the IFB presidency by doing so is far more of a comment on how awful the IFB is than how good Lang is.

    I hope Lang will face good solid informed questions by mainstream journalists about his views on issues like improving the Strategy, Minnesota-type buffer requirements for farmers, whether he supports IWILL and the original IWILL formula, etc. I’d be very willing to be wrong and pleased and amazed. But based on past experience, I’m not optimistic about needed questions even being asked.

    • I'd welcome a guest post

      from this perspective on Lang and the land use policies Iowa would need to make progress on reducing ag runoff.

      • Thank you!

        I appreciate that invitation to me and others. And I want to clarify that my reference to “mainstream journalists” was only because they reach many Iowans who don’t look elsewhere for information. I have never appreciated or understood the deep value of alternative journalism so much as during this past year, and regret my previous ignorance. That goes triple for this blog.

        Two last things re Lang. First, a claim that sometimes goes unquestioned in press conferences is the assertion that Iowa “leads the nation” in farm pollution efforts. By some measures, probably. But Minnesota is now enforcing an actual legal farm buffer-strip requirement, and Indiana has well over a million acres of cover crops, twice as many as Iowa. Iowa is behind on some things.

        Second, the argument is often made by the IFB et al that it will be years before the use of some farm conservation practices results in better water quality measurements because of a kind of geological time lag. True. But there won’t ever be better measurements unless there are much better practices. Getting good conservation on the ground is how Iowa agriculture should be judged, and so far the progress is very slow and sporadic.

        Watch for the next official evaluation of Iowa water quality progress to measure, as one component of progress, whether more farmers are thinking about water. Thinking is nice, but doing is what matters. The “think system” was very cute in THE MUSIC MAN, but the resulting music left a lot to be desired.