Ag Policy Blog

Agriculture Loses a Titan

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Bill Northey speaking in 2015 at a rally in Kansas City, Kansas, during an EPA hearing over the Renewable Fuels Standard. Northey, who passed away at age 64, was a strong advocate for agriculture who remained a farmer at heart. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The feeling of loss was clear late Monday afternoon as state agricultural secretaries from around the country were in downtown Washington for the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture (NASDA) and started their winter meeting.

Nearly everyone here had worked in some way, shape or form with Bill Northey. As DTN Staff Reporter Todd Neeley reported, tributes immediately poured in as people learned Monday that Northey had passed away at 64. (…)

I was going to do my job Monday afternoon and interview Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, who is Northey's successor in that role. As Naig mentioned what a shock it was to hear about Northey's passing, California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross came up and gave Naig a heartfelt hug. Ross and Naig talked about how Northey was a mentor to so many people.

After Ross left, Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn offered Naig her condolences, followed by Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur.

Northey was president of NASDA from 2011-12, one of a long list of positions he held over time.

Ted McKinney, CEO of NASDA, was undersecretary of Trade in the Trump administration as Northey worked across the hall as undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. I asked McKinney what stood out about Northey. McKinney noted he had called on Northey for advice and knowledge about farming going back to Northey's time as president of the National Corn Growers Association in the 1990s.

"I'll just say this. I don't know that I've ever met somebody who was a better listener and a more empathetic listener than Bill Northey," McKinney said. "He was always curious and wanted to hear what anybody said to him. And gosh, if the world were all like that, we'd sure be a better place."

McKinney pointed out Northey had extensive knowledge as a farmer and he worked with a "deep sense of fair play." Despite all of the positions Northey held in agriculture, McKinney said Northey remained grounded as an Iowa farmer.

"I never saw Bill change. There was no ego in the man. He was all about how we do better for agriculture and more specifically for farmers and ranchers."

McKinney added, "So, we've lost the Titan in U.S. agriculture. I really believe that. Will we go on -- yes -- but it will be different. Maybe the best thing we can all learn from this is that we would all be better off to a degree if we can all emulate our friend Bill Northey in that listening and that empathy and that incredible inquisitive curiosity that made him so knowledgeable. Maybe that's what we should take from his very strong legacy."

As the emails were pouring in at DTN, Katie Dehlinger, our business editor, pointed out, "He was one of my first interviews as a DTN intern at a no-till field day. He always remembered me, and I will always remember his kindness."

On my own personal note, I took my family to Commodity Classic in Orlando last year because it worked with my kids' college spring break. We visited a restaurant near the convention center one night and Northey happened to be there as well. I introduced him to my family and explained he was the former Iowa Agriculture Secretary who I've known awhile, but Northey then proceeded to gush about my work as my wife and college-age kids listened to Northey talk about all the places where we have crossed paths over the years.

It was just one small example showing how Northey made everyone else's role in agriculture feel important.

He will be missed.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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