Secretary of Ag race
For the most part, the Secretary of Ag's position is to watch over bureaus that are generally regulatory. The Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is broken down into various divisions, then bureaus:
Consumer Protection and Animal Health
Dairy Products Control
Meat and Poultry Inspection
Weights and Measures (the people who check those gas dispensers)
Market Development and Administrative Services
Ag Diversification and Market Development
Horse and Dog (Dog and Pony show?)
Horticulture and Farmers Markets
Plant Management and Technology
Commercial Feed & Fertilizer
Entomology and Plant Science
Iowa Laboratory Facilities
Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Mines & Minerals
Pretty boring stuff, for the most part.
Now, nowhere do I see "Livestock Zoning" or "Ethanol Plant Ownership", issues that are polarizing this race. It really doesn't matter what Bill Northey or Denise O'Brien think about local control of livestock operations; they'll get their marching orders from the Legislature and Governor. Sure, O'Brien is an organic farmer, and she might choose to expand the Organic area of the department, but she has no ability to regulate livestock agriculture out of existence. Northey can't force industrial hog buildings to be built on every square mile, either. The rhetoric being thrown out by both sides (and their cheerleaders) is oftentimes overblown and out of proportion.
The Secretary of Ag's position is pretty well defined. The bureaucrats are in place to run the divisions and bureaus. All the SOA has to do is smile, shake hands, make sure the place is running efficiently, and get out of the way. They are ambassadors of Iowa agriculture, not control freaks who set the markets and define the weather. The SOA won't be responsible for counting votes, releasing or hiding SS numbers of those with liens against them, and conducting useless public notary conferences, unlike the Secretary of State's position.
(It's surprising we don't hear more about the SOS's race...maybe because it involves someone who's a member of the South-Side La Machina).
I know O'Brien personally, and I think she's a pretty decent person. I've met Northey, and he seems like a good guy, too. Knowing that the position is mostly administrative, having to deal with people more than develop agricultural policy, I'd have to give the nod to Northey, especially since he has worked with renewable fuels and spent lots of time on boards and committees. Denise is at heart an activist, no matter how she tries to change her appearance and rhetoric. She's been fighting the system for 30 years or more. She is a left winger by far (she's marched at anti-WTO demostrations), and I don't know how well that would play at a regulatory-type agency.
To be honest, it might make more sense to have the SOA appointed by the Governor and the DNR Chief selected by general election. The DNR (Dept of Natural Resources) appears to have more and more control over people's lives every year. Electing someone to that position, instead of an appointee by the Governor, might shed some more light into how the Department works and what it does. IDALS (Iowa Dept of Ag and Land Stewardship) is for the most part benign to most Iowans in its function.
This is just a little distraction from the Snake/Dodo Bird race we have for governor. I'm still writing in Ed Fallon - nobody would cheat on their spouse with an accordion-playing, turtleneck-wearing progressive, or could attempt to reinstate Touchplay through a "contribution".