Ag secretary candidate offers new vision for Iowa agriculture

By Ken Roseboro

Organic farmer Francis Thicke emphasizes on-farm energy and local food production

Francis Thicke sees challenges ahead for agriculture in Iowa, one of the most important farming states in the US, and he wants to do something about it. That’s why he is running as a Democratic candidate for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture.

“Iowa agriculture will need to change if it is to thrive in these challenging times,” Thicke says.

In particular, Thicke sees erosion of Iowa’s fertile soils, water quality problems from the proliferation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), escalating prices for fossil fuels, and increasing monopolies among agribusinesses that are reducing farmer income.

While he sees challenges, Thicke also sees solutions. These include on-farm energy production such as farm-scale wind turbines and perennial crop production for biofuels, alternative livestock production systems to CAFOs, and increased biodiversity.

Local food production

Thick sees local food production as another solution, and this is an area he is highly qualified to promote. Thicke and his wife, Susan, own Radiance Dairy, an 80-cow, grass-based, certified organic dairy in Fairfield, Iowa. They have a processing plant on their farm, which processes about 2,400 gallons of milk per week. The plant produces bottled milk, cheese, and yogurt, which Thicke markets through grocery stores and restaurants in their local community. All milk products are sold within four miles of Thicke’s farm.

“I think we will see a dramatic growth in community-based food systems in coming years,” Thicke says. “These will provide fresher, safer, and more secure food supplies for local consumers, protect natural resources, and contribute to the prosperity and renewal of rural communities.”

Thicke wants to reactivate the Iowa Food Policy Council, which aimed to promote local food production and connect Iowa high schools and colleges to farmers who can supply fruits, vegetables, and other food crops.

Highly qualified

Beyond his farming experience, Thicke’s other credentials make him a highly qualified candidate. He has an M.S. in soil science and a Ph.D. in agronomy, with a soil fertility specialty. He worked at the US Department of Agriculture serving as the National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service. Thicke has also received many awards and honors, including the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

On-farm energy

Thicke says the biggest challenge facing agriculture is its dependence on fossil fuels with its price volatility. “We are making ethanol for cars driving on highways, but have done virtually nothing to secure the energy future of Iowa agriculture,” he says.

As secretary of agriculture, Thicke would call for a moratorium on public funding of ethanol plants and invest the funds in on-farm energy sources.

One source is heating biomass to produce combustible fuel in a process known as pyrolysis. Thicke says native Iowa prairie grasses, wood, or even garbage can be used. A key advantage to pyrolysis is that, unlike ethanol production, it can be done in small-scale production facilities that could be distributed throughout Iowa’s rural areas.

An added benefit of using prairie grasses is that they could help to preserve Iowa’s precious soil resources. Prairie grasses have deep roots that help to build soils, and farmers could grow them on a small area of their farms.

Thicke also supports wind energy but favors mid-size wind turbines on farms as opposed to large-scale wind farms owned by out-of-state utility companies.

CAFOs and GMOs

In recent years, Iowa has seen the proliferation of hog and chicken CAFOs, which pose threats to water quality due to large volumes of manure and to human health as the recent half-billion egg recall from two Iowa farms demonstrated. Thicke wants to see local control over CAFOs and tighter regulations, including better air quality standards to protect rural residents.

With regard to increasing concentration in agriculture, Thicke says, “We need some Teddy Roosevelt-type trust busting” to break up the growing corporate monopolies in seed and livestock markets.

Thicke favors mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods and “farmer protection acts” to protect farmers from “adventitious” contamination from GM crops that causes economic damages.

To get his message out, Thicke has been traveling extensively from one end of Iowa to another, speaking at colleges, county fairs, Farm Bureau meetings, parades, Democratic candidate events, and house parties.

The reception has been positive. “I’ve gotten great responses to the issues we are talking about,” he says.

Thicke also recently authored a book, “A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture” that lays out his proposals for a more sustainable and profitable agriculture.

Thicke says his message is timely and needed—now. “Change is coming and it can be done in an orderly fashion or be default. The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, October 2010)