John Norwood speaks on campaign as Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture


Courtesy of John Norwood for Secretary of Agriculture

John Norwood is the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. He will run against the current Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Naig.

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John Norwood, the Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of Agriculture, sat down for an interview with the Iowa State Daily to discuss ethanol use, cannabis and overall agriculture in Iowa.

We are products of our environment, so growing up in a community focused on agriculture and farming helped foster his desire to serve his community on that front, Norwood said. He added that having access to gardening in his youth helped further cultivate his interest in agriculture.

“I did not grow up on a farm, but I grew up in a farming community,” Norwood said. “In fact, it was one of the original farming communities in this country, it was a part of what then was Sudbury Plantation, it was founded in 1638.”

In college, Norwood began as a history major studying agricultural history. 

“I researched and studied Henry Wallace as a junior in college; I had no idea I was gonna spend a good part of my life living in Iowa,” Norwood said. 

Out of college, Norwood worked for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in the capital engineering department regarding water. He then obtained his master’s in agriculture from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now known as the Yale School of the Environment. 

Norwood also ran an agricultural land trust in California and briefly worked with the Secretary of Resources of California. Norwood has lived in Iowa since 2002 and was elected as the Polk County soil and water commissioner in 2017. 

Norwood said there are many things to improve on, which is one of the reasons he’s running, and said his position as water commissioner gives him a unique perspective. That perspective gives him an edge over his opponent, he said.

“My opponent, he’s a nice person, I mean he’s a good person,” Norwood said. “I think he tries hard, but we need more than nice, and we need more than ‘tries hard.’ We really need some vision, and we need the ability to execute, and execute at scale because we’re farming 23 million acres.”

Norwood said the Department of Agriculture and land stewardship budget is not enough to tent 23 million acres and added that Iowa needs a secretary that will represent all Iowans.

“The opportunity is huge for Iowa because we are an agricultural state, but we have to begin to understand — how do we address the billion pounds of nitrates that we send down the Mississippi-Missouri river systems on an average year?” Norwood said. “We’re a leader in soil loss, you know, and we’ve lost a third of our topsoil in places, and we have farming practices that are exasperating that.”

Norwood said Iowa agriculture needs to be looked at through a lens of systems to be dealt with systematically; be it water quality, soil health, reversing the decline of rural communities or even on the matter of inclusivity in agriculture. 

“As the Secretary of Agriculture, it’s not the secretary of just the corn, beans and hogs,” Norwood said. “I mean, that’s really important, but that’s not sufficient to protect our water, protect our soil, and re-energize rural communities. We need, fundamentally, a different approach.” 

Precision Agriculture

Norwood said he is in favor of precision agriculture but not in favor of complete automation.

“We have to be careful because technology can also work against us,” Norwood said. “When we say, ‘Productivity, produce more with less,’ well, that includes less people, and that’s what we’re seeing out in rural Iowa. We’re seeing fewer and fewer people if it’s all about commodity production.”

Precision agriculture can be useful for more efficient use of farming equipment, such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, but added that it is important to find food and agricultural systems that include people, not systems that phase them out in the name of efficiency and productivity, Norwood said. He also said such a shift would produce more jobs in Iowa. 

“Let’s think about some of the markets we’ve been ignoring for 50 years because we’ve been so export-focused,” Norwood said. “[…]A third of the nation’s pork, the ethanol and biodiesel, five billion– a lot of that gets exported, but we’re not paying enough attention to the 3.2 million Iowans, and a third of the school kids that are on free and reduced lunch. Let’s grow some food here, friends.”

Along with precision agriculture, Norwood also advocated for the diversification of farming.

“We’re playing with an increasingly risky portfolio of products because it’s too narrowly focused,” Norwood said. 

Norwood also added that diversification would lead to an improvement in Iowa’s degrading soil quality. 

“It’s like eating a salad, I mean, if you just eat iceberg lettuce all the time, you might get tired of that, so the bugs, the microbial action, depend on a diversity of plants growing above them,” Norwood said. “So we gotta figure out through our farm programs and the farm bill in particular, how to […] increase the diversity of those rotations.”

Regarding the difficult acquisition of farmland for new farmers, Norwood suggests a program that would supply individuals with land to grow specialty crops. He calls these hubs of farmland “Farm Parks.”

“The food or farm park is just like the business or industrial park only the focus is food and agriculture,” Norwood said. “It might look a little different in an urban setting. In an urban setting, you might be using vacant lots.”

Norwood said Farm Parks might even include worker housing.

Carbon Pipelines

Norwood said carbon pipelines do not qualify as a public use, and if they are to be had, then the proponents of carbon pipelines should find a way to implement pipelines voluntarily. 

“Carbon pipelines oughta have annual fees in addition to the easement, and then they oughta be paying the counties an annual fee having to do with mitigating the environmental health and safety,” Norwood said. 

Norwood said he isn’t a big proponent of doing carbon pipelines. He sees them as a temporary solution to make ethanol more competitive in the short term. 

Norwood said we need to find ways to support ethanol, having identified it as a transitional fuel. The way ethanol may be used in 20 years may look different, Norwood said. 

“The electrification of cars, just like my smartphone here — that is gonna happen a lot more quickly, I think, than people anticipate,” Norwood said. “That smartphone went from nobody had it in 2007 to 15 years later, most people have it, and the electric cars, I think, are going to follow probability a similar curve.”

The focus, he said, should be on what markets are harder to electrify, citing aviation and railroads as a few, and that ethanol use should be concentrated in those markets. 

“If somebody is gonna do this, it’s got to be done fairly,” said Norwood.


Norwood said he is in favor of a highly regulated cannabis market, similar to the regulations on alcohol, adding that street use of cannabis is being contaminated with “scourge drugs” such as fentanyl.

“I’m not talking about selling cannabis to kids under 21 and so forth,” Norwood said. “I’m not a proponent of drug use for recreational purposes, but I do think we have to have a reality with Chicago and Illinois– they get more tax revenue now through cannabis than they do through alcohol.”