The Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture is Francis Thicke of Fairfield. The southeast Iowa farmer is calling for a "new vision" for Iowa agriculture based on renewable fuels produced on the farm, and ecologically sustainable crop and livestock production. "Iowa is not taking advantage of how we could use a new agriculture and energy economy to generate jobs," he says.
Thicke and his wife have an 80-cow organic dairy farm, process the milk on the farm and sell milk and cheese locally. He emphasizes the need for more locally produced food to be sold in Iowa markets. For information about his background and his stand on various issues, see www.thickeforagriculture.com. Thicke provided the following answers to questions asked by Wallaces Farmer.
Q: Why are you running for this office?
A: I am running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture because I see that Iowa agriculture is facing some major challenges that aren't being addressed. Also, we have great opportunities on the horizon we could take advantage of. We are in a time of great change and we will need new vision and leadership if Iowa agriculture is to thrive in the 21st Century.
An example of a major challenge: Iowa agriculture is highly dependent on cheap oil, but we are at the end of the cheap oil era, and we have no plans for how to power agriculture beyond fossil fuels. We are producing ethanol for cars but doing virtually nothing to assure the energy future for agriculture.
We need to develop energy production systems that will power agriculture, and we should develop them at a scale that will allow them to be farmer-owned, so the wealth created stays in the pockets of farmers. Two very promising energy solutions for agriculture are farm-scale wind and biofuels.
Technology is developing rapidly to produce bio-oil from biomass through high-temperature processing. Bio-oil can be refined into diesel fuel and gasoline. One advantage of this technology is that it can be done on a much smaller scale than current ethanol production. Purdue University scientists (and others) are developing mobile processing systems that could bring processing equipment to the farm to process biomass, instead of hauling bulky biomass to central processing. This would allow farmers to produce a high-value product they could retain ownership of, which could be made into a fuel that would power the farm.
Another advantage of this system is that any biomass can be used. Perennial crops would work very well because they would help protect the soil from erosion and nutrient leaching and require fewer fossil-fuel inputs to produce.
Q: Where does the current ethanol and biodiesel production system using corn grain and soybeans fit in your vision?
A: We need to protect the investments we have in our current biofuels infrastructure, but we should target future investments of public funds toward developing the next generation of biofuel technologies to produce fuels that 1) use sustainable, perennial cropping systems, 2) are of a scale that can be farmer-owned and put the profits in the pockets of farmers, and 3) produce fuels that can be used to power agriculture.
We should also install mid-sized wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, so the wind that blows over the farm will power the farm. Policies that will support rapid adoption of farm-scale wind power include mandatory net metering and feed-in tariff polices, which would require power companies to connect farm wind systems to the grid and pay an enhanced rate for the initial years after installation of the turbine to allow rapid payoff of the wind system.
The Secretary of Agriculture should provide leadership for developing the next generation of energy systems that will power agriculture. Oil economists – even the U.S. military – have warned us that oil prices are going to go much higher. We need to take action now to make Iowa agriculture energy self-sufficient. Either we create a prosperous future through planning and foresight to make agriculture energy self-sufficient, or we wait until it is too late and have to change by default, which will create crises and chaos.
Q: Would you try to convert all of Iowa to organic?
A: I am an organic farmer, but I have also farmed conventionally and have done research on conventional agricultural systems. I understand both approaches to agriculture and recognize there is a place for each. There is room at the table for everyone, and as Iowa ag secretary I would work for the best interests of all farmers.
Organic agriculture is the fastest growing segment of agriculture, and it is providing new value-added opportunities for Iowa farmers. However, I normally don't even talk about organic farming on the campaign trail unless someone asks about it. What I do talk about is how we can make Iowa agriculture more sustainable.
Q: Iowa is a leading livestock state. Most of Iowa's hogs, poultry and to lesser extent fed cattle are produced by large confinement animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Would you push for local regulatory control over CAFOs instead of having statewide regulations like we now have? Why?
A: I support local control over CAFO siting. There is a misunderstanding that local control over siting would change statewide regulations. That is not true. With local control, the comprehensive framework of statewide regulation of approved manure management plans, etc. would remain at the state level with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. To argue that local control over CAFO siting will create 99 sets of rules is a red herring argument designed to divert attention from the real issue—that local control is simply part of our democratic process.
Livestock production is an important part of Iowa agriculture. However, when livestock manure is stored in liquid form it becomes anaerobic and putrefies, creating toxic and odorous compounds that are not present in the original manure but which are strongly offensive and hazardous to health. Livestock production must be done in ways that are not only profitable for farmers but also environmentally sound and protective of the health and quality of life of residents of rural communities.