Who is the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture? The answer to that question is, and has always been: whichever faithful servant of Big Agriculture was keeping the chair warm and keeping Monsanto, Koch and Cargill happy, Democrat or Republican. (Currently, it's a guy who loves chicken factories.) An urban dweller, I didn't think that the Ag Secretary had anything to do with me.
A few months ago, I met Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer who is running for Secretary of Agriculture, and he changed my mind about that. I have begun to grasp how this official affects the food I eat, the quality of the air and rivers where I live, and waters far downstream from Iowa. I have even begun to hope for change in the way we produce food and use energy in Iowa, where we often set the example for farming practices across the country.
Francis Thicke (pronounced “tickee”) has an organic dairy farm near Fairfield, Iowa, a small community best known as the home of Maharishi University. Francis and his wife, Susan, make milk, yogurt and cheese with the milk from his 80 cows, and sell all of it locally. Although he grew up on a farm, Francis wanted to be a musician. He studied music and philosophy in college, and plays a mean trumpet. But eventually he got a doctorate in agronomy instead, worked at the USDA, then came back to Iowa to start a dairy farm.
Radiance Dairy is no ordinary farm. Livestock and landscape nourish each other. Everything the cows eat is grown on land they fertilize, and as Francis says, they enjoy their work. He uses solar panels to power pumps for water , to electrify fences, and to heat water for his dairy processing plant. A wind turbine is in the works. His operation is so innovative that he attracts visitors who come to learn, from local schoolchildren to the World Bank, and he travels frequently to teach and give lectures. He has received awards from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, which recognized him as a “Steward of the Land,” among other awards. People who know him regard him as a national treasure.
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(In this video thanking DK Greenroots, he takes us on a brief tour of the farm.)
Iowa has the most prime farmland of any state, produces the most corn and soybeans, and the most hogs and chickens. As a result, it has a disproportionate influence on federal agricultural policy. It is no coincidence that Tom Vilsack is Secretary of Agriculture in D.C., or that Tom Harkin chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee for years. In Iowa, ethanol is a sacrament, and the farm bill affects thousands of people statewide. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture is an influential office, and not just for farming. The Secretary also participates in the Iowa Power Fund Board, a board that includes the governor, and which sets policy for energy in the state through grants for innovation. The Secretary of Agriculture influences policy for both energy and agriculture. What difference would it make if the Secretary was committed to sustainable agriculture and renewable energy? Maybe a lot.
Francis believes that if Iowa can help its farmers generate their own power, and farm in a way that washes less silt and fertilizers into our watersheds, it will have an impact on federal policy and on other states. He is committed to sustainable agriculture, and wants to give local communities more control over the hideous warehouses for hogs and chickens, called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) that blight the Iowa landscape. He has testified before Congress and the Department of Justice on corporate monopolies in agriculture and wants to do more to oppose them from within government. He wants to make locally-grown produce more accessible to consumers. In Iowa, we eat produce shipped in from California at the height of summer, while the fields of corn and soybeans stretch as far as you can see in every direction.
Francis has real expertise in renewable energy, and innovative ideas for generating power on farms with wind turbines and biofuels. As a member of the Iowa Power Fund Board, he could really influence getting beyond corn-based ethanol and toward more renewable sources. Every time I hear some pundit saying that we are going to have to live with Gulf oil spills because we have to have oil, I think of Francis talking about distributed energy, where every farmstead has a wind turbine, instead of being completely vulnerable to increases in fuel prices.
In Francis' vision, the wind turbine powers the farm with wind that blows over the farm, and is a profit center for the farmer who can sell excess power to the local utility. With distributed power, giant transmission lines are unnecessary. To help pay for the initial cost of erecting the turbine, Francis would advocate feed-in tariffs. These require utilities to buy local wind power at higher rates for a period of time sufficient to help the farmer pay off the cost of the turbine, then the rates drop to a level that is attractive to utilities, because wind power is inherently cheaper than fossil fuels or coal. There is a lot of support for wind in the state, which gets 20% of its power from wind now.
If a farmer is using wind power to make electricity, ammonia and hydrogen, and perennial crops to make biofuels, and is running his machinery and backup generator with these fuels, he will be part of transforming agriculture from an oil-gobbling enterprise to a sustainable one. He will be insulated from the shock of $147/barrel oil, which caused chaos in farming two years ago, and which Francis wrote about in Threats to Food–Peak Oil and Agriculture. The expenses of agriculture as it is practiced now are generally more than the income from it, and subsidies are what keep a lot of farms afloat. In Francis' vision, that would change. He talked about it recently on an Iowa radio program:
“If we can find ways we can put more money in the pockets of farmers, instead of farmers being squeezed by the concentrated markets they sell into, like beef, and hogs and corn, and also being squeezed by the concentrated markets they buy from, their seeds and their fertilizers… we can make agriculture more self-sufficient and the value-added can be closer to the farm, and stay on the farm…”
What Francis understands is that we cannot keep doing what we are doing, in agriculture or otherwise. Climate change and peak oil are realities that we will have to deal with whether we want to or not. If he is elected, I expect Iowa to set an example that the rest of the country will be unable to ignore. We can cut our use of fossil fuels, sooner and more dramatically than we think we can, by adopting technologies that are available now, or are being developed for use in the near future, such as ammonia and hydrogen made with wind power. (Engines that can run on these fuels are being made in Iowa today.) Or we can pretend that agriculture and transportation systems based on cheap oil are sustainable, until we face a crisis too big to ignore.
Maybe we are seeing that crisis now, in the Gulf of Mexico. Or maybe the price of oil will soar so far past the 2008 highs that farm combines will stand idle, too costly to run for planting and harvest. We need leaders like Francis, with innovative solutions, and we need to get started on implementing them. That is why I spend my spare time volunteering for his campaign, and donate what I can spare.
cross-posted at DownWithTyranny