Francis Thicke and some cowsMoover and shaker-upper: Francis Thicke, reform candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, on his organic dairy farm.Photo: Will Meredith

There’s a lot at stake in the 2010 mid-term elections. Democrats are biting their nails over the House and Senate races; Grist is highlighting the 37 governorships that are up for grabs. In this picture, the contest for secretary of agriculture in Iowa might seem a tad obscure to non-Iowans — especially if you, like most people, would have trouble naming your own state’s Ag Sec.

But Iowa is the big kahuna when it comes to farming, producing a fifth of the nation’s corn, a sixth of its soy, 30 percent of its hogs, and 12 percent of its eggs. It’s also the second-largest recipient of federal farming subsidies, and currently in the news for the recall of half a billion salmonella-tainted eggs. If challenger Francis Thicke (pronounced “TICK-ee”) manages to unseat incumbent agriculture secretary Bill Northey, it would be a huge win not only for sustainable agriculture in Iowa, but the nation. And it would send a clear message to Congress as lobbyists and activists begin putting on their battle overalls for the next Farm Bill.

“To the extent that the ‘farm bloc’ is shown to be much less unified in its resistance to change, the more likely that change is to come in Washington,” Michael Pollan, food-system journalist and UC Berkeley professor, tells me by email. (Pollan and — in a surreal twist — filmmaker David Lynch are judges in a contest to make a music video for the brain-colonizing song “Happy Cow” that will be used in Thicke’s campaign.) “As the scandal over Jack DeCoster’s egg ‘farm’ demonstrated, Iowans are deeply divided over the industrialization of their agriculture,” he continues. “The triumph of a reform candidate like Francis Thicke would demonstrate to Washington that a change in agricultural policy would in fact be welcome in much of the farm belt, and that legislators who purport to represent farm states by simply blocking reform more closely reflect the interests of agribusiness than that of their own constituents.”

Thicke is a blue-ribbon reform candidate, a combination of down-to-earth Iowa dairyman and professorial, statistics-spouting visionary. He’s been a full-time farmer 27 years, running what’s now a 450-acre farm with 80 cows that he and his wife, Susan, got certified organic in 1993. After a B.A. in music and philosophy, he went back to work on the family farm, then a decade later got a PhD in agronomy/soil fertility; at one point he was the USDA’s National Program Leader for Soil Science. He’s served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and the Iowa Food Policy Council at the appointment of then-governor Tom Vilsack (now the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture), and on the Iowa Organic Standards Board. He’s won several awards for sustainable agriculture and land stewardship.

And he’s written a really interesting book, A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, with chapters on how the industrial revolution became industrial agriculture, how factory farms differ from family farms, and what’s wrong with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs — another area Iowa dominates, to the dismay of those manure-spewing hog-factories’ neighbors. There’s a whole section in which he wonks out on biofuels and alternatives to ethanol — “although it can’t be confirmed, Thicke is likely the only candidate in Iowa at least who has a chapter in his campaign platform on ‘pyrolysis,’ or the process of heating biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce combustible fuel,” teased the Des Moines-Register.

Thicke talked to Grist by phone from the campaign trail in Iowa and later, by email.

Q. How’s the campaign going?

A. Very, very well. The grassroots support has been tremendous. Since Denise O’Brien ran in 2006, the interest in these issues has continued to grow. I think people realize that if we can move in the direction of greater sustainability here in Iowa — if we can get more cover crops on the landscape, more perennials, more ecologically sound ways of integrating animals onto the land — that will have a ripple effect across the country.

Q. The egg recall, terrible as it is, seems to have come at a good time for you.

A.Well, it’s made a clear distinction between me and the current secretary. You’ve seen the video, where he brags about Iowa’s egg production? He doesn’t talk about the flip side, the prices we pay in environmental costs, food safety, or worker safety, and whether workers in those operations are even making a living wage. He treats it almost like a high school conference football standing — all that matters is that we’re No. 1 in commodity ag production.

Q. You think your opponent, Bill Northey, should be handling the egg fiasco differently?

A.He’s not taking responsibility. He thinks we should wait for the FDA’s report, which probably won’t come until after the election. Conveniently. I’ve consulted a lawyer, and Northey clearly has authority to inspect the feed mill that is thought to have caused the salmonella contamination. [Editor’s note: Wright County Egg is suspected of supplying salmonella-tainted chicken feed to not only its own laying hens, but Hillandale Farms, whose eggs are also recalled. See Grist’s Tom Philpott’s reporting on other links between the companies.] At best it’s in a gray area. For him to argue that he does not have the authority to inspect the mill is really just defaulting on his responsibility to speak for agriculture, to represent it, and to take action to make sure these problems are being addressed.

Q. Agribusiness is pretty entrenched in Iowa. How much power does the agriculture secretary really have? Could you enact a moratorium on building hog factories? Regulate the egg industry?

A. That would have to be done by the legislature. But I believe the secretary should provide leadership and vision for where agriculture should go, not just be a spokesperson for industry. The current secretary is speaking for the status quo, which is understandable since he’s getting lots of money from PACs of Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and other agribusiness companies.

As Upton Sinclair said, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

Q. Is being an organic farmer a liability for you in this race?

A.They used that against Denise O’Brien, when she ran in 2006. [She was narrowly defeated by Northey after a last-minute smear campaign.] But they’re having a hard time marginalizing me because I’ve been a full-time farmer for 27 years, a scientist, and I’ve worked at USDA in Washington. My farm is a midsize operation, 80 cows, and we process all the milk on the farm loca
lly — 10 years ago we were the only Iowa farm doing that. We produce bottled milk, cheese, and yogurt, which we market locally through grocery stores and restaurants. We’re successful in many ways. We employ about five people, which means we could be a model for economic development in Iowa.

If we can begin producing more food locally, we can create more jobs and help rebuild our local populations. In Iowa, studies show that we import about 90 percent of the food we eat. And Iowa calls itself the food capital of the world! We should become the food capital of Iowa.

I’m certainly not opposed to commodity farming. We have a lot of production capacity and so commodity production will be a force in Iowa’s future. But being No. 1 in all these commodities doesn’t mean that farmers are making profits, except with the help of commodity subsidies and off-farm income. We need to diversify and produce more value-added products, both for the sake of jobs and our soil.

Francis Thicke on tractorGetting some traction: Thicke is pushing alternative energies for agriculture.Photo: Will MeredithQ. What’s wrong with the soil?

A.Half of Iowa’s original topsoil has been lost or moved by erosion caused by agriculture. And we’ve lost half of our black organic matter (carbon) to oxidation from crop production. We can’t keep on with this deficit spending of the ecological capital that the prairies bequeathed us, as Wes Jackson has phrased it.

Q. So, if you were elected secretary, what would you tackle first?

A. One of the things that I intend to do if elected is reactivate the Iowa Food Policy Council and give it a home in the Department of Agriculture. I’ll ask the Council to come up with a set of food policy proposals that we can take to the legislature. For example, how we can connect farmers to high school and university cafeterias.

And I will work on energy self-sufficiency for agriculture. The biggest challenge facing agriculture today is that it depends on cheap fossil fuels in a world of rising oil prices. We’re making ethanol, but for cars driving on highways. In other words, agriculture produces cheap raw material (corn) to make biofuel (ethanol) for off-farm use, while paying high retail prices for fossil fuels to power agriculture. With ethanol, farmers are selling cheap and buying high.

There are exciting new developments today in technology to make a biofuel called “bio-oil” on a much smaller scale than that of corn ethanol production. And, the process — pyrolysis — can use perennial crops like prairie plants for biomass. Bio-oil can be refined into diesel or gasoline. This technology has several advantages: one, it can be adapted to a farm scale, which keeps the profits in the pockets of farmers; two, it can produce fuel to power farms, and three, it can use perennial, sustainable cropping systems for biomass production. I will make bio-oil a priority.

I will also work to get mid-sized wind turbines installed on farms all across Iowa, so the wind blowing over the farm will power the farm. Three-quarters of our land has enough wind to be viable. Large wind farms produce a lot of power, but farmers who have them on their land still pay retail rates for their electricity. Like with corn ethanol, farmers sell cheap and buy high. One policy solution for getting wind turbines on farms is feed-in tariff policies — as have been used successfully for solar installations in Europe — which would require power companies to pay a high rate per kWh for the initial years after installation of farm turbines. Then the turbine will be paid for and the pay rate will drop to wholesale levels. That allows the power company to have cheap, green energy for the rest of the lifetime of the turbine, and the farmer to have a turbine that produces energy and profit for the farm.

Q. Would you do anything about market concentration in Iowa?

A. For that we’d need the Department of Justice or the state attorney general. But we need someone speaking out about these issues in Iowa. When four corporations or fewer control 40 percent or more of a market, that market starts to act like a monopoly. In pork processing, four corporations control 66 percent of the market; in beef processing, four corporations control 84 percent. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for independent farmers to find a fair market. In dairy processing, one corporation — Dean Foods — controls 40 percent of the market. During the past year, when dairy farmers were experiencing record losses because of low farm prices, Dean Foods had two consecutive quarters of record profits.

Clearly, ag markets are not functioning properly. We need Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to make our ag markets competitive again.

Q. Anything else people should know about you?

A. I believe we can farm in ways that enhance soil, water and air quality, and wildlife habitat, rather than compromise them. Our farm is designed and managed to mimic the bison/prairiegrass ecology that created Iowa’s fertile soils. We also have a number of solar and other alternative energy systems that attract visitors to the farm. We’ve had lots of visitors, including two U.S. presidential candidates and two delegations from the World Bank. Just recently, someone from the Ministry of Agriculture in Nepal stopped by to see if our model of grazing cows and on-farm dairy processing could be adapted for use in his country.

Q. What advice would you give someone who wants to change the food system? How can the average person make a difference?

A. The best place to start is by eating in accord with your own values. Seek out food that’s produced the way you think it should be, and avoid food that you think degrades the integrity of the environment, animals, or farm workers. Don’t underestimate the power of consumer demand. Last year, the dairy industry quietly phased out rBST [an artificial hormone to boost cows' milk production] because consumers let the industry know they did not want it. I expect that caged-egg production will be the next casualty for industrial agriculture due to consumer demand.

I believe that eaters have much more power than they realize, particularly when they organize and work together.