Francis Thicke is the first and, so far, only announced Democratic secretary of agriculture candidate for the 2010 election cycle. He presently operates an organic dairy farm with his wife near Fairfield, Iowa. In the past he has worked for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and was appointed by state governors to serve on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the Iowa Food Policy Council, and the Iowa Organic Standards Boards. Should he receive his party’s nomination, Thicke will likely challenge incumbent Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in next year’s general election.
After you announced your bid, the Republican Party of Iowa issued a statement referring to your “radical agenda.” That’s typical partisan hyperbole, but how do you bridge the gap between your progressive platform and the ideas of the more industrial-minded rural farmer?
I am not advocating a radical agenda. I’m advocating what I would call a true conservative agenda. And that is for conserving soil, water quality, family farms in rural communities, and to do that we need to have more resource-conserving crop rotations and animal systems.
It is mentioned on your website that about 80 percent of the food consumed in Iowa is grown outside the state, and that reversing this trend would create a significant economic opportunity. What money is our current agricultural policy leaving on the table?
There are about 6 billion dollars worth of food that we’re importing from out of state, so that’s all money on the table. Now, we of course aren’t going to be able to capture all of that, especially not immediately, but there’s a lot we could capture because we can produce many kinds of foods here in Iowa. It’s basically anything except tropical fruits and nuts. And we are already beginning to expand our local food production. We just need a more coordinated and concerted effort.
Where would you start with a more coordinated effort?
I think that Illinois has a great model. They have, just last month, passed a law that will require state-funded organizations – institutions – to purchase a minimal amount of their food from in state. We could do the same thing in Iowa. We could require state institutions like prisons and hospitals and universities and high schools to purchase a certain amount of food that was Iowa-grown. That would be a great start, I think, in helping to get the infrastructure up and going.
Much of Iowa’s crop production goes toward corn-based ethanol, which, arguably, is not a particularly economical use for corn. How can the state better exploit its natural resources in the production of energy?
I think we need to make a concentrated effort in developing biofuel systems that not only use perennial crops but that are on a scale that can be easily locally owned, particularly on the farm level, or cooperative level, so that farmers profit from it, and also that use perennial crops, which are much more sustainable for Iowa soils and Iowa resources.
What specific examples of that can you offer?
There are some new technologies that are being worked on now. One is called pyrolysis; it’s a way of heating biomass in the absence of oxygen, and it produces fuels, both gaseous fuels and liquid fuels. So that’s one possibility. We need to do more research and technology development on those kinds of biofuels that are from perennial crop feedstocks, and preferably that can be locally owned, so that it doesn’t become owned by some multinational corporation that will extract the wealth from Iowa.
What other issues will top your campaign agenda?
I think an issue that’s going to be coming up constantly is the issue of animal production systems here in Iowa, and one issue related to that is local control of concentrated animal feeding operations. I think that’s something that we need to give back to local communities so that they can have some input or control over where these CAFOs are sited in their jurisdiction. And also, I think that we need to have more regulations on CAFOs to protect neighbors, to protect rural residents, and one of them would be greater separation distances of CAFOs from communities, rural residences. Another one is that I would like to see the legislature establish air quality standards for CAFOs.
How is the campaign looking so far?
I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback wherever I go – people calling, wanting to volunteer, people even volunteering to donate to the campaign – so I think people seem to be very interested in the issues I’m talking about. Obviously, some of them are going to be a little controversial. That’s part of the process I want to initiate – a public dialogue on some of these more controversial issues in Iowa agriculture that we tend to ignore.