Democratic candidates for governor, agriculture secretary speak in Waukon, Lansing

Candidates speak in Waukon, Lansing ... Democratic candidates Diedre DeJear and John Norwood spoke to crowds in town hall-style meetings at both the Robey Memorial Library in Waukon and the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library Friday, April 22. DeJear is running for the office of Iowa Governor and Norwood is seeking the office of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Submitted photo.

by Ellen Modersohn,
submitted for the Allamakee County Democrats

Diedre DeJear and John Norwood, Democratic candidates for Iowa governor and secretary of agriculture, respectively, spoke at the libraries in Waukon and Lansing Friday, April 22. The Allamakee County Democrats sponsored the town hall-style meetings.

While earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism at Drake University in Des Moines, DeJear started the nonprofit Back to School Iowa to support youth who want to continue their education. Also while an undergrad nearly 15 years ago she founded Caleo Enterprises, which helps small businesses access affordable marketing tools and develop successful business strategies. She has worked with nearly 1,000 businesses across the state, including helping business owners gain access to funding and resources at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Norwood has worked in agricultural and environmental organizations across the country. In California, he led an agricultural land trust in grape, nut and cattle ranching. In Boston, MA, he worked with one of the largest regional water and wastewater utilities in the country. He has also worked with farm-based renewable energy, specialty feeds and Iowa grown foods. Norwood is a small business owner and mentor. With two decades of service as an elected and appointed board director, he is currently soil and water commissioner for Polk County.
DeJear spoke on several main topics in her campaign platform, including the following:

Education: Iowa once ranked first in the nation for quality of education. Now it hovers slightly above the middle. US News ranks Iowa at 18. DeJear blames the slide on a lack of appropriate funding. “Our governor about a month ago increased the education budget by only 2.5 percent,” she said. “It didn’t even meet the level of inflation. I take issue with that. An underfunded education system is not going to prepare our students for much of anything.”

Cuts in funding have led to schools cutting pre-K classes, trades classes, the arts, counselors and more, she said. DeJear said she wants to fully fund education and to ensure that schools can provide 30 hours of pre-K per week: “I’m talking to kindergarten and first-grade teachers and they’re telling me students aren’t coming in prepared. Parents are lacking child-care opportunities. So why not get our kids in that space where they can actually learn?”

About a school voucher bill in the state legislature, DeJear said, “That is not going to improve our education system. That bill may help two percent of our students, but we’ve got over a half a million students in public schools. It’s not going to get us from 18th to No. 1 again.”

Health and mental health care: DeJear sees diminishing access to healthcare across Iowa and said, “We can do better if we increase reimbursement rates and ensure that providers are being paid on time.”

Mental health challenges, she said, were abundant a few years ago but have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, she said, “this state should have had six mental health care access points by law as of July of last year, but we only have two.”

The candidate told of speaking with a father in Dubuque who said his son was thinking of harming himself. The father took his son to an emergency room - his only choice to obtain care - where he was told there would be a six-month wait to see a therapist locally. Another option was for the eastern Iowa man to take his son to a hospital in Sioux City, where a bed was available.

“We are perpetuating a crisis,” DeJear said. “We know that brain health is incredibly important, but we’re seeing that the lack of access to services is increasing our prison population, homelessness, substance abuse and domestic violence.”

“Meanwhile,” she said, “we’re sitting on more than a billion dollars surplus that the other side is calling a trust fund.” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced last September that Iowa would end the fiscal year with a balance of $1.238 billion in its general fund. DeJear continued: “You’ve got to be in a position of privilege to have a trust fund. That’s a rainy-day fund, and we all know it’s raining in this state. Our legislature asked for $300 million of that surplus to be put into education. The governor said no. By law, we’re supposed to have more mental health care access points. But we’re not putting that money to use.”

Economy: DeJear said supporting small businesspeople, including farm operators, is key to thriving economies in all 99 Iowa counties. “Because they’re providing jobs for more than 50 percent of the workforce, we’ve got to stand up for small businesses and give them the resources they need,” she said. After speaking about the state giving $208 million in tax breaks to Apple to build data storage centers near Des Moines that would provide jobs for 50 people, DeJear said, “Imagine if we had dispersed that amount to small business owners.”

Unions: DeJear said she welcomes negotiating with workers: “It helps me see clearly what workers are dealing with. We need workers that are getting paid sustainable wages where they can provide for their families with just one job. They also need to be safe on the job. Look at what’s happening with prison guards - there may be just one guard for 250 inmates. We wouldn’t do that for kindergarten classrooms.”

During his part of the meeting, Norwood described his vision for a more modern and balanced system of agriculture in Iowa. He explained three ways in which he thinks the system is unbalanced and suggested solutions for each point.

Soil loss: Iowa sends four to five tons of soil per acre down the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers or into reservoirs, roads and ditches each year, Norwood said. “In some places, we’ve lost a third of our topsoil. If we continue to farm the same way, in 100 years we may not have topsoil in many parts of Iowa,” he said.

Norwood’s solution to halt or slow soil loss involves what he calls ag plumbing. Old tiling and water drainage district systems need to be reimagined, he said. Working with farm operators and landowners, Iowa needs to figure out coordinated measures that allow land to be productive but also allow operators to be smart with the use of water, he said.

As an example, he spoke about the Polk County Soil and Water District moving from installing saturated buffers - water- and nutrient-absorbent vegetation between farm fields and waterways - one at a time to putting in 50 at one time, coordinated to have more impact.

Water quality: “In Iowa, in an average year, we send a billion pounds of nitrates into the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and that’s not sustainable. It’s not just a problem for the hypoxic zone in the Gulf (of Mexico), it’s a problem for Iowa’s drinking water supplies,” Norwood shared.

Healthy soil is key to promoting clean water, Norwood said, and farming practices such as tillage and chemical soil prep have unintentionally hurt soil biology. “When we do have healthy soil, its ability to perform in very important ways re-emerge,” Norwood said. “One of them is the ability of the soil to filtrate water. So, when it rains hard, instead of the water being shed off the top of the soil, like concrete, it will infiltrate the soil.”

Also, if the soil contains enough organic matter, Norwood said, it can retain that water so it can be used in the field, for instance feeding crops during droughts. Organic matter has been depleted in Iowa soils by about half, he said, “so we need cover crops, cropping systems and no-till practices to help soil health begin to recover.”

A system based on productivity: Norwood said that almost 70 out of Iowa’s 99 counties are in population decline because that state is focused on a commodity-based system that is all about increasing productivity, which involves producing more with less. “That includes less people,” he said. “So as these farms get bigger and the technology gets better, you don’t need anybody in the tractor anymore - that can all be done autonomously. Who’s going to be left in a lot of our rural counties?”

Norwood said that while productivity is important, diversification of production is the way of the future. He envisions farm parks, up to 100 acres in each county, where people can experiment with different types of agriculture and see what other ways of farming could be successful in the future. “Go to any university, you’ll see their research park. This is the same concept, only we’re doing farming,” he said. “Let’s make Iowa the Silicon Valley for farming.”

Farm parks would help small operators get started, and not put the onus of figuring out new ideas on large producers who need to focus on productivity to manage their debt load, he said.

Norwood said his organizing principle for how the state needs to think about soil, water, people and systems is “Iowa built to last.” “Where we stand today is not set up to last,” he said.