Kyle Werner Donnelle EllerDes Moines Register

Nearly six years ago, Bill Northey said he was leaving a “job of a lifetime” as Iowa’s agriculture secretary, a position he loved every day, even though not every day was easy.

Iowa agriculture “is filled with great people,” Northey said, and he was delighted he could meet so many of them.

On Monday, many of them mourned his death at the age of 64, calling him a fierce and passionate advocate for Iowa and U.S. farmers and rural America.

Northey served as the Iowa secretary of agriculture from 2007 to 2018, then became the nation’s first undersecretary for farm production and conservation under then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serving until 2021.

Republican Bill Northey, running for secretary of agriculture, speaks at the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox at the 2014 Iowa State Friday Aug. 8, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Most recently, Northey was the CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which announced his death Monday. “Bill was a tireless advocate for agriculture and a beloved leader for the entire AAI staff and organization. As we mourn the loss of our close colleague, we also extend our prayers for his family in this difficult time,” the statement said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered all flags to be at half-staff until Northey is buried. Funeral arrangements are pending.

“Bill was a great leader whose work ethic and passion for Iowa agriculture was unmatched. Iowans and farmers around the country were fortunate to have such a rock-solid advocate and friend,” Reynolds said in a statement.

“Bill understood well our responsibility to be good stewards of the land and exemplified that calling throughout his career,” she said. “But his life’s greatest role was as a loving husband, father and grandfather. Bill will be missed.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he knew Northey for decades.

“I am extremely saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Bill Northey,” Vilsack said, calling him “a lifelong champion, personally and professionally, for Iowa’s and all of America’s farmers.”

“Bill’s colleagues, the Iowa agriculture community, and so many who knew him will feel the absence of such a passionate, knowledgeable and devoted leader for a long time to come,” the former Iowa governor said, adding that he, his wife, Christie, and “many employees who worked with him at USDA, extend our deepest condolences” to Northey’s wife, Cindy, and his family.

Northey’s achievements included being a farming conservation pioneer

Northey was among the leading architects of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan implemented in 2013 to cut by 45% the fertilizer runoff from the state’s farm fields that contributes to the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Last summer, the Gulf was unable to support aquatic life in an area about the size of Yellowstone National Park, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

More:Is Iowa’s water cleaner after ten years of state efforts? It depends who you ask.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy encourages Iowa farmers to adopt conservation practices like planting cover crops and employing buffer strips to reduce the loss of nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizers from farm fields.

Northey, who farmed with his family near Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa, was among the first farmers in the state to adopt cover crops, said Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, an Iowa corn, pork and soybean collaboration that supports farmer adoption of conservation to improve water quality.

“He walked the talk,” McMahon said. “His mantra was, ‘It’s voluntary but not optional.’”

Working with the USDA, Northey also helped guide the state’s response to the 2014-2015 avian influenza outbreak that killed about 32 million chickens, turkeys and other birds. Nationally, the $850 million disease outbreak killed 50.5 million birds, the USDA reported.

The most recent bird flu outbreak, still ongoing, has surpassed the 2015 outbreak, with 81.7 million birds lost due to the highly contagious, deadly disease.

More:Iowa’s legendary soil, the bedrock of its economy, is losing its richness, new research shows

Branstad: ‘He was a great Iowan and a great public servant’

Terry Branstad, former U.S. ambassador to China, said Northey was a tremendous salesman for Iowa and U.S. farm goods when he went on trade missions. And Northey always brought his grandchildren whenever Branstad, as Iowa’s longest-serving governor, pardoned an Iowa turkey at Thanksgiving.

“He was a great Iowan and a great public servant,” said Branstad, now president of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said “the Iowa farm community lost a giant.”

“Bill Northey was a dear friend and fierce advocate for the family farmer,” Grassley said in a statement

Current Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig shared Grassley’s sentiment, saying Northey was a friend and a mentor.

“He loved Iowa, and he loved Iowa agriculture,” Naig said in a statement. “His curiosity, care for others, and love of learning made him a leader that everyone could admire. Bill brought a farmer’s work ethic to every aspect of his life, and he was tireless in promoting our state, its people and our agriculture.”

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Northey helped “establish Iowa as a national leader on key initiatives,” including renewable fuel production, conservation and water quality. “I was thankful to work with him closely during my time in the Iowa Senate and the U.S. Senate on the issues that matter most to our farmers.

“Bill will be greatly missed and leaves behind a legacy of unparalleled passion for Iowa agriculture,” Ernst said in a statement.

Monte Shaw, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association director, said Northey was always “a thoughtful but forceful leader for farmers and rural America.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue swears in Bill Northey as a USDA undersecretary on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

“He was an incredible friend to ethanol and biodiesel producers because he saw the big picture. This wasn’t just about turning a profit — this was about preserving a way of rural life,” Shaw said in a statement.

Suzanne Shirbroun, a northeast Iowa soybean farmer and the Iowa Soybean Association board president, said Northey’s “leadership and deep understanding of the issues have had an enormously positive impact on the lives of Iowa farmers and their communities.”

In addition to his state and national roles, Northey was a former commissioner of the Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District, and past president and chair of the National Corn Growers Association.

Northey’s father, Wayne Northey, 90, died in December.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.

Kyle Werner is a reporter at the Register. Reach him at [email protected].

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