John Hegg of rural Decorah, left, visits with Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig in the basement of Mabe's Pizza Thursday afternoon. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Sarah Strandberg)
John Hegg of rural Decorah, left, visits with Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig in the basement of Mabe's Pizza Thursday afternoon. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Sarah Strandberg)
There’s been a lot of uncertainty in the farming community about the country’s ability to trade its agricultural products around the world, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said during a roundtable discussion in Decorah Thursday afternoon.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he told the small gathering in the basement at Mabe’s Pizza.
Naig said he’d heard from several farmers who wanted to attend the meeting, but had to take advantage of the nice weather to catch up on field work.
Naig said it’s time to move ahead with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
“It’s time to get that through Congress. Canada and Mexico have introduced bills into their legislative bodies to approve it. It’s time for us to follow suit,” he said of the agreement he referred to as NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) 2.0.
USMCA is great for the country and great for Iowa, according to Naig.
“Canada and Mexico are our No. 1 and No. 2 trading partners. Zero tariffs across those borders is a good thing,” he said.
Confirming the agreement also would provide a needed boost for dairy producers, he said.
“It will provide more of an opportunity to export more U.S. product into Canada,” Naig said.
He said supporting the agreement doesn’t need to be partisan because it’s good for the U.S. and good for Iowa.

Mexico tariffs
Naig said when the president threatened tariffs against Mexico “that concerned us.” The president called for the tariffs to leverage immigration change to reduce the flow of immigrants into the country through the southwestern border of the U.S.
The president backed off on the tariffs after an agreement recently was reached with Mexico to reduce the flow of migrants into the U.S.
As far as trade talks with China, Naig said “we all wish that situation had been resolved long ago. It has not.”
He said Chinese officials have “stepped back” from the negotiating table.
“We need the two parties to get something done. We need them to come to the table. They are a great market for us and we are a great supplier for them,” he said.
The president’s tariffs on China have resulted in retaliatory tariffs that have hurt the U.S. and caused market disruption. But Naig said some aspects of the trade arrangement between the two countries “needed to be fixed.”
“The way China was acting in the market place couldn’t be sustained,” Naig said.
While China is an “important market,” the U.S. also needs to think “elsewhere” when it comes to trading partners, Naig said.
“Japan is a great example. They are the No. 1 pork market by value, but we don’t have a free-trade agreement with Japan. Japan entered into the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement and we did not,” he said, which has resulted in a “great disadvantage” for the U.S.
However, he said the president recently met with the prime minister of Japan and negotiations are ongoing.
Naig said it’s also important to focus on “smaller markets” such as Columbia and Panama, countries that import pork and beef.
“We have a free trade agreement with them and we can do more,” he said.

Ethanol
Naig said the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent approval for the year-round sale of E15 ethanol was a “win, win, win.”
Previously the E15 blend of corn-based ethanol was not available during the summer months due to concerns the blend contributed to smog in hot weather.
Going from a 10 percent ethanol blend to a 15 percent blend year-round will mean ethanol plants will be purchasing more corn from Iowa farmers, Naig said.
But the ag secretary cautioned that opponents of ethanol and biodiesel fuel are “alive and well. We always need to keep advocating for this industry.”

Water
Naig said the state needs to “scale up” its effort to implement Iowa’s nutrient reduction plan, which was finalized in 2013.
“We’ve spent several years on how to demonstrate practices in rural and urban areas,” he said. “We have to keep introducing people to these practices.”
Naig said the state is offering cost share for cover crop and no till practices. He said there were 1,000 first time cover crop users last year.
“We started out with 10,000 acres of cover crops … last year we estimated over 1 million acres of cover crops,” he said.
While the ag economy is in a downward trajectory, Naig said “all our numbers are headed the other way on water conservation. People really do see the return on investment and understand the importance of investing in soil health,” he said.
John Hegg of rural Decorah expressed concern about “someone in Washington” telling him how to fix sinkholes on his farm.
Naig advised Hegg he’s “better off” talking with officials at the Natural Resource Conservation Service about them because of the area’s “unique landscape.”
Mike Steuck of the Department of Natural Resources Manchester office, said the NRCS wants to find out where the water goes from sinkholes because it’s tied to groundwater and drinking water.
“They’re looking at ways to minimize inputs,” Steuck said.
The Decorah Hatchery is spring fed and impacted by sinkholes, he said.
DNR Fisheries Biologist Brian Malaise said the Hatchery’s watershed is impacted by what happens in Calmar and Ossian. If Calmar gets a significant rain event, the spring at the hatchery “will go dirty” in about 60 hours, he said
“So much of this is awareness and understanding how water flows,” Naig said.
Landowners, government agricultural entities and commodity groups all need to work together on addressing problems, Naig said.
“I love connecting the dots,” Naig said.