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Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette reports:

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey smiles as he talks with people at Wapsie Valley Creamery in Independence on Jan. 17, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Bill Northey thought he would have completed his annual 99-county tour of Iowa by this time.

Then his schedule took a detour through a United States Senate hearing on his nomination to be USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. However, with his nomination now tied up in Washington politics, Northey expects he'll complete his rounds of Iowa before heading off to the nation's capital.

So far, the director of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has visited more than 80 counties, stopping at farms, grain and livestock facilities, seed companies and agriculture-related manufacturers.

He's not bothered by his foot-in-two-worlds situation, Northey says, adding that "until that political skirmish is settled, my days are, for the most part, consumed with being Iowa secretary of agriculture."

"We'll do as much as we can as long as we can. I'm not at all sure how long it will take," he said, referring to confirmation of his presidential nomination. "We'll keep at it as long as we have time to keep at it."

Northey's nomination is being held up by Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is using it as leverage to make changes in the Renewable Fuel Standard to make it more favorable to oil-producers and refiners. It's seen as retaliation for the efforts of Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds to get EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to uphold President Donald Trump's commitment to them to support ethanol use.

In the meantime, Northey says he's happy doing a job that he couldn't imagine he would enjoy as much as being Iowa agriculture secretary.

"It just has been great to be able to get out to talk to farmers and others involved in agriculture," he said. "I have really, really enjoyed it. I've visited all the corners of Iowa and seen some things I wouldn't have seen."

A high point for Northey has been the department's effort to address water quality issues.

"It's been very rewarding to see how folks are engaging," he said.

The job has not been without challenges. The bird flu epidemic in 2015 stands out.

"That was a crazy situation that we never want to see again," Northey said about the epidemic, which the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation estimated caused $1.2 billion in economic damages and the death of more than 30 hens and 1.5 million turkeys.

Not all the challenges have been in the field. The department has absorbed budget cuts and is operating with about 15 percent fewer people than when he became secretary.

"Our folks have done a great job of doing even more than what they were doing 11 years ago when we got there," he said.

Northey expects the dispute holding up his confirmation will be resolved and "when the time comes, if I need to switch, I'll be able to do that."

For the time being, we'll just let it play out," he added.

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