Organic farmer plans to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture (updated)

It’s not yet clear whether Iowa’s Republican Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, will seek re-election in 2010 or run against Governor Chet Culver instead. But at least one Democrat appears ready to seek Northey’s job next year.

Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer near Fairfield with a Pd.D. in agronomy and soil fertility, announced yesterday that he has formed an Exploratory Committee to consider running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. I’ve posted the press release from Thicke after the jump. One of his top priorities would be expanding local food networks:

“Growing more of our food in Iowa represents a multi-billion dollar economic development opportunity.”  This potential economic activity could “create thousands of new jobs and help revitalize rural communities in Iowa, as well as provide Iowans with fresh, nutritious food,” said Thicke.

Thicke would be an outstanding asset to Iowa as Secretary of Agriculture. A working farmer and expert on many agricultural policy issues, he currently serves on Iowa’s USDA State Technical Committee and has an impressive list of publications. In the past he has served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the Iowa Food Policy Council, and the Iowa Organic Standards Board.

He has also won awards including “the Activist Award from the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Outstanding Pasture Management award from the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Friend of the Earth award from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C.”

Here’s an interview Thicke gave in 2003 about his organic dairy operation. He also wrote this piece on the benefits of pasture-based dairies for CounterPunch in 2004. I found a YouTube video of Thicke speaking about livestock farming in Pella last year.

Thicke’s relationship with the Culver administration is strained, to put it mildly. He did not go quietly when Culver declined to reappoint him to the Environmental Protection Commission. In addition, Thicke is a strong advocate for “local control” of confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge opposes and Culver has not pursued as governor.

If Thicke runs for Secretary of Agriculture, his campaign is likely to become a focal point for environmentalists who aren’t satisfied with our current Democratic leadership in Iowa.

UPDATE: Denise O’Brien responded to my request for a comment on Thicke’s candidacy:

I have pledged my support to Francis. He has an excellent background to be a strong leader of our state agriculture department. His depth of knowledge of agriculture and natural resource management gives him credibility when it comes to truly understanding the relationship of agriculture to the rest of the world. It is my intention to work hard to get Francis elected.

March 20, 2009


Francis Thicke (Tic-kee) announced today that he has formed an exploratory committee to advise him on the possibility of running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in the 2010 election.  Thicke and his wife, Susan, are owners and operators of an organic, grass-based dairy farm near Fairfield .  They process their milk on the farm and market it locally through grocery stores and restaurants.

Citing estimates that more than 80% of the $8 billion worth of food consumed in Iowa comes from out of state, Thicke said “Growing more of our food in Iowa represents a multi-billion dollar economic development opportunity.”  This potential economic activity could “create thousands of new jobs and help revitalize rural communities in Iowa, as well as provide Iowans with fresh, nutritious food,” said Thicke.

The ethanol industry has been struggling to survive in today’s changing economic climate. “Iowa’s investment in ethanol production has brought economic development to agriculture, and we need to protect that investment,” said Thicke.  “However, it is time to reassess, and consider how future investments in renewable energy can be better targeted to profit farmers, and better protect our natural resource base.”

Thicke has a Ph.D. in agronomy/soil fertility and has previously served at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. as National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service.   Thicke frequently speaks at conferences and workshops in Iowa, across the Midwest, and nationally on a wide range of topics, including local food systems and economic development, ecologically sound animal production systems, organic farming practices, and soil management for sustainable farming.

Thicke has served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and the Iowa Food Policy Council at the appointment of Governor Vilsack, and on the Iowa Organic Standards Board at the appointment of Governor Branstad.  He currently serves on Iowa’s USDA State Technical Committee.

“I am looking forward to engaging people across the state in a dialogue on opportunities to make Iowa agriculture more prosperous and sustainable,” Thicke said.  

About the Author(s)


  • First thought is that this means O'Brien won't run again

    From looking at Thicke’s background, he probably has the same connections as Denise O’Brien, so I’d assume that she probably isn’t going to run again.

    • I assume the same thing

      Thicke wouldn’t take this step if O’Brien were planning to run again. I am seeking a comment from O’Brien about this, but haven’t heard back.

      • I'm pretty sure

        Denise won’t run.  When she was running in ’06, she told me Francis had told her he was happy she was running so he didn’t have to run.  I guess now it’s his turn.  Considering how and why Denise lost, Francis as our SOA would probably be a good thing.  Now I really hope that Northey will run for governor.

        “If Thicke runs for Secretary of Agriculture, his campaign is likely to become a focal point for environmentalists who aren’t satisfied with our current Democratic leadership in Iowa.” – Couldn’t agree with you more.

        • if I were Northey

          I would stay put, but if he thinks he has a decent shot at the GOP nomination, he may well go for it.

  • Wow! This is great news.

    Thickee would be a fantastic Ag Secretary.  If he can avoid the mistakes of the O’Brien campaign, I think he can win.

    Does he have a website yet?  Did the press release have any contact info?

    • the press release included contact info

      Shoot me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT and I will pass it along.

      I don’t think he has a website yet–just an exploratory committee. If anyone out there is good at building websites, you might want to offer your services.

    • Mistakes...

      Like letting a herd of cattle starve to death?

      I voted for Northey.

      • you fell for sleaze

        that Denise O’Brien and her campaign staff didn’t know how to deal with in the final days of a campaign. Sleaze that was thrown because the Republicans had no legitimate arguments against her vision for agriculture in this state.

        Denise was never in charge of the cattle side of their farm, and her husband was cleared of wrongdoing in that incident. They fired the farmhand responsible 20 years ago.

        So you voted for the person who has no interest in balancing the interests of CAFO operators against the general welfare of Iowans and those who live downstream from us.

        Your comment is a healthy reminder, though, that Francis Thicke should have his eyes wide open about what he’ll be up against.

        And I will say this: although Northey isn’t as good as O’Brien would have been, he is an improvement on Patty Judge.

        • Substance not sleaze...

          My conscience wouldn’t let me vote for someone for Secretary of Ag who can’t even run their own farm without incident. I don’t care how many excuses or levels of blame she wanted to assign to it…the buck stops with the farmer.

          Hopefully Mr. Thicke has a better record, and I can vote for him. I want to.

          • I'm a bit torn

            on the cattle starvation issue.  Even though I worked hard for Denise, I do think it was a legitimate issue to bring up.  Denise and her campaign should have been ready for it with a quick response and all the facts.  Also, I have to admit I have been positively surprised by Northey.  He’s definitely an improvement over Judge.

            When it comes to Thicke, I suspect his opponents will be going through his EPC votes and trying to find ways to paint him as a radical.

            • they weren't ready for it

              That was obvious. They first responded with no comment, then tried to change the subject. Not handled well at all.

              I don’t think any CAFO advocate has a leg to stand on criticizing O’Brien on the animal welfare issue, though.

          • how many cattle suffer every day

            in the CAFOs that Northey champions?

            I don’t get your moral reasoning here.

        • Careful dmd...

          Denise’s husband was charged, convicted, and fined.

          The fact that their operation was so large that it required a “hired hand” was the red herring for me.

          The last cattle operation I worked for was  huge, on a multi-generational ranch in the southwestern U.S. with over six thousand cattle, multiple bulls, and as many calves, on twelve sections of land.  

          The owner was out there himself, every single day, checking on the welfare of every single animal.  

          Sorry, I like Denise, I think she would have been great, it didn’t affect my vote, but I will stand for no excuses on this.

          • they got a hired hand

            because they were working off the farm to make ends meet during the 1980s.



            I have to respond to the vicious attacks on Denise O’Brien’s family from the Republican Party. I am a farmer in Cass County, Denise’s home county, and I’ve known Denise O’Brien for over 35 years, including in 1987 when she was fighting for family farms in Iowa and Washington D.C.

            I’ve also known Larry Harris for years and believe him when he says this is the way it was.

            The accusation that Larry willfully harmed livestock is just one of many distortions by her opponents to take away her lead. Please spread the truth about this situation that happened almost twenty years ago.

            Here are the facts:

            In 1987, like so many farmers during the farm crisis, Denise and Larry were working off the farm to make ends meet. Larry hired a neighbor to take care of some steers and he moved them to that hired hand’s farm.

            When Larry learned that the steers were being mistreated, he fired the farmer and took the steers into his own care. The steers were not in Larry’s care when the reported neglect took place.

            These attacks on Denise’s family just shows the Republican Party has no shame. This is one of the many negative attacks waged by Denise’s opponents in the last few weeks.

            Her campaign depends on supporters like you to make sure that her vision of clean water, local control, and safe and healthy communities is not drowned by her opponent’s mudslinging. Please continue spreading the word about Denise’s message to help her win on Tuesday.


            Connie Russell

            Anita, Iowa

            • I really hate to revisit this issue,

              since I am starting out farming again for the first time in over twenty years, but we ALL worked off farm back then. Starving livestock really sets off a primal gut kind of thing for those of us who had to make some pretty difficult decisions about farm life during the 80’s.

              And yeah, that was a nasty desperate ploy by the Iowa GOP to drop that in the 11th hour.

  • Northey

    I happen to think Northey, should he win, will be easily re-elected.

    He has been an aggressive Secretary of Agriculture who is well liked by the Republican establishment which means that the money will come his way.

    Francis will need several million to even make this race close because Northey has really travelled the state and is the incumbent.

    • that's why I would stay put

      if I were Northey and not take a risk by running for governor.

      It would be an uphill battle for Thicke, I agree. The big money will all be against him.