GOP Ag candidate upsets partisan balance on environmental commission

The state commission that oversees environmental policies will no longer conform to Iowa standards on bipartisanship once its leader files papers as a Republican candidate for secretary of agriculture in the coming weeks.

Fayette County farmer Chad Ingels announced on January 25 that he will seek the GOP nomination for secretary of agriculture, KGLO Radio’s Jesse Stewart reported. A former Iowa State Extension watershed specialist who now measures fertilizer applications for a private non-profit, Ingels has served on the Environmental Protection Commission since 2013. He has chaired that body since last June, shortly after his reappointment to a four-year term expiring in 2021. Of the nine commissioners, Ingels is the only registered no-party voter.

Iowa candidates for partisan offices must name the political party with which they are affiliated on paperwork needed to qualify for the ballot. So sometime before the March 16 filing deadline for primary candidates, Ingels will need to change his registration to Republican.

Five current Environmental Protection Commission members are Republicans, while only three are Democrats. When Ingels switches, the GOP will hold one more slot on the nine-member commission than the party should have, according to the principle underlying Iowa law on bipartisan boards.

I wondered whether Ingels might have to resign from the commission in order to file for a GOP primary. Fortunately for him, Iowa Code doesn’t require that step.

No person shall be appointed or reappointed to any board, commission, or council established by the Code if the effect of that appointment or reappointment would cause the number of members of the board, commission, or council belonging to one political party to be greater than one-half the membership of the board, commission, or council plus one.

Because that language refers to the time of appointment, the Iowa Attorney General’s office “does not advise boards or commissions to disqualify a sitting member based on a subsequent change to his or her political affiliation,” communications director Geoff Greenwood told Bleeding Heartland this week. “When a board member has changed political affiliation, the new affiliation should be considered when vacancies arise or when it is time for reappointment,” he explained.

During a January 30 telephone interview, I asked Ingels whether he would step down to allow Governor Kim Reynolds to name a Democrat or no-party voter to the Environmental Protection Commission before the next vacancies come up in April 2019. “I’ve notified the governor’s office of that situation, and we have not discussed it any further,” he told me. “I will do what the governor’s office wants to do.” Staff for Reynolds have not indicated how they want to handle it, he added.

Records show that Ingels voted in Republican primaries in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2010. He changed his registration in 2012 to support a friend in a Democratic primary race for Fayette County supervisor. The following year, he switched to no party, and Governor Terry Branstad named him to the environmental commission. Now, he’s running in a statewide GOP primary. An outsider might suspect that he was merely posturing as a no-party voter to create the appearance of partisan balance. How would he respond?

Ingels didn’t vote a straight party ticket even as a registered Republican, he told me, “and over the last few years, I have felt more independent.” He sees the Department of Agriculture as perhaps “the most bipartisan” state government agency and credited Secretary Bill Northey, who has “worked with both sides.”

Ingels hasn’t donated to any Iowa GOP candidates or party committees during the last fifteen years, according to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s database. A search for his name turns up only two contributions, both in 2014: $25 to Democratic State Representative Bruce Bearinger, who represents the part of Fayette County where Ingels lives, and $50 to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Political Action Committee.

At least two other Republicans will run for secretary of agriculture. How does Ingels differentiate himself from former Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Lang and American Soybean Association chairman Ray Gaesser? (Our phone call happened before Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig indicated he may also seek the office.)

I think I’ve got a much stronger water quality background, especially working with farmers in the field, connecting what they’re doing on the land with what’s going on in the water. I’ve worked with a half a dozen farmer-led watersheds in northeast Iowa, doing an innovative approach that allows them to create their own incentives.

Ingels’ campaign announcement noted that he worked with more 300 farmers as an Extension Watershed Specialist for Iowa State Extension between 1999 and 2016. He also leads a committee that advises the American Farm Bureau Federation board of directors on water issues. During our interview, he added,

I’ve got a strong background as we look to working with small farms, especially some of the smallest farms, the highly diversified farms, specialty crops, that kind of thing. I’ve got a horticulture degree. I’ve raised pick-your-own strawberries in the past. I direct market hogs to consumers, sell a majority of my hogs to Niman Ranch. So I produce in kind of a retro environment. While I’m not against confinement production–I work with farmers on manure management, nutrient management related to that. But I just have a different perspective, I think, on some of the alternative ag opportunities that are out there.

And I think we’ll really need to expand some of those opportunities or find ways to incent more of those opportunities so we can bring on small farms. I mean, that’s, I believe, one of the fastest-growing segments of Iowa agriculture is the smallest farms. And then if we want to bring on young farmers in the current commodity price situation, we’re going to have to have opportunities that are more than just corn and soybeans.

Ingels agrees with Northey’s all-voluntary approach to the state’s nutrient reduction strategy. “We really need to build community efforts based on watersheds that get the data as close to the farm as possible. [….] The experience I have, once the farmers know the numbers, they want to make some changes and find some ways to improve.”

For the past year, Ingels has worked on a project for the Iowa Nutrient Research & Education Council, a private non-profit led by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. Consulting with fertilizer retailers in the northeast third of Iowa, his job is to measure how much nitrogen and phosphorus farmers are applying in hundreds of fields, randomly selected to be a representative sample of the state. The goal is to chart “the progress of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.” Notably, the project doesn’t involve measuring water pollution from agricultural runoff.

At this writing, Ingels does not have a campaign website, but he is on Facebook and Twitter.

UPDATE: Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee chair Dan Zumbach announced on February 2 that he will run for secretary of agriculture, assuming Northey does not seek another term. Zumbach can try for higher office without giving up his legislative seat, because he won’t be up for re-election in Iowa Senate district 48 until 2020.

Top image: Photo of Chad Ingels from the Iowa Nutrient Research & Education Council‘s website.

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  • Believe it or not...

    …there are states where using farm conservation to reduce nutrient pollution is no longer just voluntary. Vermont has joined that list. Minnesota has joined that list. There is even a multi-state effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay that is not just voluntary.

    And requiring farmers to reduce pollution, instead of just begging and pleading like Iowa does, seems to be working. Bay water quality is improving significantly faster than the water in the Gulf Dead Zone. I’m pointing this out partly because for some reason or other, this kind of information doesn’t get much distribution in this state.

    And it’s great when farmers want to “know the numbers.” The problem is that the Iowa public is not allowed to know the numbers.