Big power, little prestige: North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner serves a vital function
BISMARCK — Voters heading to the polls next month may be forgiven if they misunderstand the importance of the position of North Dakota's agriculture commissioner.
This election season has featured no debate between the two candidates, and the race has featured little advertising. And, like most other races this year, it has found itself in the long shadow cast by the state's contest for U.S. Senate.
But that lack of focus certainly does not match the role the office plays.
"It is one of the biggest economic development offices in North Dakota, and I would submit that it is right up there with the governor for the capacity to influence business," said Sarah Vogel, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner from 1989-97.
The North Dakota Century Code lays out many of the duties of the agriculture commissioner — what boards and committees the holder sits on, what appointments he or she makes and what functions the Agriculture Department must perform. The agriculture commissioner also sits on the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which oversees 13 separate entities.
"If you're on the Industrial Commission, you have the capacity to improve and expand programs," Vogel said.
A voice for agriculture
The two men vying to be North Dakota's agriculture commissioner for the next four years stress the importance of advocating for farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry. Doug Goehring, the current officeholder who is running for re-election, and Jim Dotzenrod, a state senator who is challenging Goehring, have similar views on what matters in the office.
Dotzenrod felt compelled to run for agriculture commissioner to give voice to farmers and ranchers in the state, especially during the ongoing trade war. The commissioner gets to be a "spokesperson for the 30,000-plus producers," in the state, he said.
Goehring has been agriculture commissioner since 2009, and he, too, finds advocating for the industry to be the most important function, along with the opportunity to interface with federal government, energy, the public and more.
"It's a bully pulpit. You get to speak out on behalf of family farmers," Vogel agrees. "A voice of a commissioner of agriculture counts."
Though the agriculture commissioners in most states have such platforms from which to speak, most voters don't get a say in who stands on that platform. According to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, North Dakota is one of only 12 states in which the agriculture commissioner is elected, along with Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. The position is appointed by governors in all other states.
Vogel first ran for agriculture commissioner during the farm crisis of the 1980s. As such, the campaign attracted attention. But Vogel contends it always should be important to the public who holds such a position.
"That was in a very big farm depression. But we're there now again," she said. "It should get more attention. People should pay more attention."
A 'rather large' portfolio
The duties entail far more than just speaking up for farmers and ranchers.
The agriculture commissioner must make appointments to commodity groups, as well as to various state committees, and must serve on a variety of committees and boards with a connection to agriculture. The Agriculture Department has responsibilities to work with the federal government, like on predatory animals and grant programs. The department must oversee marketing programs, like the Pride of Dakota program for North Dakota products, and an Agriculture in the Classroom program, among many others. The office also serves a variety of regulatory functions, including on pesticides, weeds, animal health and more.
"It's a huge job," Vogel said.
She said the office functions as much as an environmental office as anything, with duties regarding pesticides, fertilizers, weeds and endangered species.
Agriculture commissioners have some latitude regarding which issues the office makes a priority. Vogel, for instance, said she was "a bit of a bear on regulations," tasking staffers to read the Federal Register to watch for regulations that might affect North Dakota farmers.
Goehring cites the state's pipeline reclamation program as one of his proudest works in office. That was an opportunity, he said, "to enhance communications" among oil companies, midstream operators, farmers, ranchers and landowners to deal with pipeline fatigue. He also is very proud of the agency's pollinator program, which has been used by other states to develop similar programs, he said.
Dotzenrod said that if elected, he would like to find a way to make sure parties injured by pesticides could get a copy of the Agriculture Department's report on the matter without going to court.
"To me, it kind of belongs in the public domain," he said.
Work on trade remains an important part of the Agriculture Department — and one that both Dotzenrod and Goehring want to see expanded.
Goehring said North Dakota products now go to 84 countries, compared to 63 a decade ago, and he sees continued work on that front. Dotzenrod said more trade is vital for North Dakota at a time when the state has "lost a big account, the way it appears," referring to China not buying soybeans from the U.S.
"We need customers," he said.
Much of the influence of the agriculture commissioner regards its position on the state's Industrial Commission. The commission oversees the Building Authority; Bank of North Dakota; Geological Survey; Housing Finance Agency; Lignite Research, Development and Marketing Program; State Mill; Oil and Gas Division; Oil and Gas Research Program; Pipeline Authority; Public Finance Authority; Renewable Energy Program; Student Loan Trust; and Transmission Authority.
"My portfolio is rather large," Goehring said. "I mean, it's agriculture; it's energy, oil and gas; it's business development; it's business; it's infrastructure; it's water; it's trade. I mean, that's just a handful."
Vogel said serving on the Industrial Commission brought her one of her "main accomplishments" during office: getting the State Mill to sell 10-pound sacks of flour rather than just 25-pound sacks. She also cites loan programs and regulatory affairs as important aspects of serving on the commission.
"Because you're at the table, you can do things like this," she said .
The Industrial Commission has drawn criticism in the past year for not posting minutes of its meetings in a timely fashion and for its handling of oil and gas issues, including the issue of "orphan" oil wells.
Goehring said the commission follows state law in its dealings and suggests some state laws may need more teeth.
Dotzenrod said the Industrial Commission is "a public trust" and if elected he would "make sure that we're accountable to the public and transparent in what we do."
Vogel said the Industrial Commission is "a serious part of the job. I spent a lot of time on it."
The job of agriculture commissioner, in general, requires flexibility to the conditions, Goehring said.
"Whenever issues come up, we just step up and deal with those. It's just the way it is, whether you have a drought, whether you have fires, whether you have floods, we respond to the issues at hand," he said.