by Paul Deaton
An Interview with Francis Thicke, Democrat for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.
The parking lot was jammed, the foot traffic relatively light when I met Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Candidate Francis Thicke on Saturday at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market. I had come to buy weekly supplies of asparagus, green onions, spinach and radishes, and to interview Thicke for Blog for Iowa. We set up near the north side Farmers’ Market table and I asked him how the campaign was going.
"It is going very well,” said Thicke who had recently been campaigning at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market on Court Street. It seems to be his milieu, as he was heading to the Freight House Farmers’ Market in Davenport after his stop in Iowa City. I asked what he could do as Secretary of Agriculture to help small farmers, like the ones at the market, scale their operations to meet consumer demand for fresh, local produce. “It was not easy work” he said. As the number CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and Farmers’ Markets grows, a number of individual, small scale farmers are struggling. Thicke indicated that a ten acre growing operation was a lot of work and that it would be better to meet demand by increasing the number of operators rather than increasing the scale of individual farmers.
Thicke said he supported organizations that help small farmers exchange information about growing techniques and marketing, saying “I want to convene the Iowa Food Policy Council within the Iowa Department of Agriculture.” This organization was founded by Governor Tom Vilsack in 2000 and had a specific life cycle and has remained dormant of late. According to Thicke, Sue Roberts and Angie Tagtow are revitalizing the council and Thicke believes it would have more visibility and credibility with a home in the Department of Agriculture. The council would help coordinate 65 grassroots food marketing and production organizations and recommend appropriate legislation. If he were elected, Thicke would work to encourage cooperation among small scale growers to create the “next generation of food systems.”
I asked Thicke about the current Secretary of Agriculture’s recent trip to Japan and South Korea. He said the current Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, was “…selling more commodity crops and that’s fine. For countries with which the US has free trade agreements, the U.S. has a trade deficit in agricultural products.
That data is contrary to the mindset of many people and organizations in this country that think that "free trade" can solve all our problems -- that we can trade our way out of our problems of surplus ag production.”
Someone walked up to us and the subject changed to energy on the farm. Thicke said that Iowa was “status quo on energy” because of our dependence on oil and its fluctuating prices. I asked about the anaerobic animal waste digesters that are used to generate and collect methane for farm energy solutions. Some view this practice as a sustainable way to handle livestock manure. Thicke had a different approach, “when we didn’t store the manure, we didn’t have the problem with methane.” He said waste digesters were “overhyped and connected with CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).” According to Thicke, there are three problems with the process. 1). When animals eat the feed, they take most of the energy out, 2). this form of methane collection is not efficient, and 3). waste digesters represent an additional federal subsidy for confinement operations. In Thicke’s organic dairy operation, he does not collect animal manure, which composts in an aerobic process that does not produce methane.
I asked Thicke for his thoughts about Monsanto’s work with gene patenting and in his opinion, this affects everyone. Thicke is opposed to the practice of taking common plants, sequencing the genes and patenting them. Monsanto’s practice impacts Iowa agriculture in that there is a loss of crop diversity. According to Thicke, 90% of the soybeans and 80% of the field corn are patented genes. In addition, the State Universities no longer produce breeder stock, increasing the reliance on commercial seed. He believes new Federal legislation is required to address the concerns of Iowans on gene patenting.
As we talked, people started walking up to the candidate and I asked Francis Thicke for a final statement. “I am excited about the response to my campaign and we will carry on. The status quo is supported by Big Agriculture. They have the money and we hope to have the votes.”
~Francis Thicke holds a Ph.D. in agronomy and has served in the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D. C. as National Program Leader in Soil Science. He received the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2009 from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University. He is also a recipient of the Steward of the Land Award presented by the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.
See BFIA's previous four-part interview of Francis Thicke, Part I Part II Part III Part IV and our analysis of the race for Secretary of Agriculture. Check out his website at ThickeForAgriculture.com.
This blog post is from Blog for Iowa: the online information source for Iowa's progressive community