As National Agriculture Week is recognized March 21-27, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said the agricultural industry, including Iowa, has numerous opportunities to innovate and solve problems.

Issues stemming from disrupted supply chains in recent years have brought more attention to where “food, fiber and fuel” come from, Naig said.

He credits Iowa’s reputation for managing the risks of raising crops and livestock to a continuous focus in the state on making operations more productive and efficient throughout the supply chain.

Naig shares more below.

This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What is distinct about innovation in the agriculture industry?
In agriculture, we’ve got this approach of we value our heritage, we value our history. We celebrate century and heritage farms in Iowa 100 years or 150 years in the same family. How things used to be done very much matters to us. It’s part of our history and heritage, and yet, uniquely in agriculture, we’re always looking for the next thing, the new and improved, the new variety, the new piece of equipment, the new technology. I think putting together those two concepts of valuing our history … [while also trying] to put the latest and greatest technology to use on that farm, I think that is unique to agriculture.

Now, how does that play out in Iowa? I think that when I look at this space, I think we’ve got large, industry-leading, multinational companies in the same space as a really healthy startup ecosystem, and there’s a lot of mentoring I think that happens and partnerships that happen there. Those things can happen, and yet do you have something that really matters to agriculture? Do you have something that matters to a producer? Well, we can find that out very quickly too, because we also have some of the most progressive, productive farmers in the world. You don’t have to travel very far from Iowa State University or from the headquarters of one of these companies or from one of these startups to a farm and you can find out very quickly whether you’ve got something that matters or is applicable in agriculture in Iowa, and I think that’s so valuable. Not everywhere can say that they can do that.

What does creating an ecosystem that supports ag innovation look like?
You’ve got to be intentional about it. I think the state of Iowa has made investments, but again, there’s a couple of categories here. One is it’s the nature of agriculture where we are pursuing innovation all the time so even those established companies are looking for new innovation and new approaches. We’ve got some challenges that we need to address: global food security, sustainability, reliability, resilience. They’re going to take some new approaches to doing things and so I do think that’s something that’s unique to agriculture — just flat out the number of issues that we need to be addressing and the opportunity for innovation there.

What is the Choose Iowa program, and why was it started?
The whole concept of Choose Iowa or a local branded program really did take on new momentum coming out of COVID where there was a disrupted supply chain, where there was already a trend of wanting to shop local or interest in shopping local. Local means different things to different people, but conceptually wanting to incorporate local into their food purchase decision. Then you had a disrupted supply chain and generally an effort to shorten the distance between the farm and the plate, so you laid those two together and you say, there’s never been a time like now to try to bring this forward, so we did it. I took this to the Legislature last year, and it was funded. We’re in the process of creating the program and it’ll launch later this year.

There’s benefits at both ends of the chain — consumers getting something that they want and have been asking for, and then match that up with a tremendous opportunity for producers. I think it does give us an opportunity to diversify agriculture, but also try to capture more of that margin here. If it’s produced here, it’s processed here, it’s sold and consumed here, then that whole supply chain exists within the state of Iowa, so there’s an economic upside to that as well.

What are the biggest opportunities you see for Iowa to innovate in agriculture?
This is on the crop side and on the livestock side — we’re generating a lot of data. We have a lot of information, more information today than at any time in our history, about the activity of farming or raising crops and livestock. How do we take that information and make decisions? How can it become predictive? If I’m trying to put together a nutrient management plan for next year’s crop, I have tools at my disposal that give me the very best recommendation to try to make sure that I don’t put too little on or too much which has environmental benefits, but also economic benefits to me as a producer. And so I think taking all the information that we have at our disposal and turning that and being able to then make decisions about it to make it predictive.

What are the challenges you see for ag startups?
I think obviously there’s the larger issues around just the uncertainty of our economy that I think clearly make an impact. The other reality of agriculture is this can be upside and some downside. This is a global business. It’s global in nature, meaning the things that are applicable here can be applicable in other places, which is good from a market standpoint, but we also have to recognize that things that happen in other parts of the world impact us and potentially impact us negatively here. I think you do have to understand that getting into this, that this is a global business, especially when it comes to commodities. Again, that can have an upside or downside and so global uncertainty, issues like Russian invasion of Ukraine, what China is doing in the world. Those are things that actually do tend to impact us here.

What does sustainable innovation look like to you?
When I look at sustainability, I think in light of what we’ve seen the last couple of years to me in one part, it means we need to have a resilient food supply. There were supply chain disruptions to the point where there were things missing from the grocery store shelf or you were limited in the things that you could buy, and so we need to be productive. We have got to continue to do what we do to meet the demand here in the United States and around the world. That means bringing tools to agriculture that allow folks to do that. Sustainability also means profitability; there’s got to be profitability and return on investment. If we’re going to make investments in new innovation, then you need return on those investments at the farm level and all throughout the supply chain.

Then of course, one of the more basic definitions in my mind of sustainability and production is you’re producing more with less, and that means reducing your impact on the environment. There’s an environmental benefit to that, there’s also a cost there’s an expense benefit to that. There is not just one simple definition of sustainability. It’s got to be all of those things. We are trying to be innovative even with how we work with farmers on delivering traditional soil conservation practices or water quality practices, batching practices together and delivering them that way. That is innovation. It’s a traditional practice, but we’re doing it in new ways.