[by Jay Mattsson]
I’ve known Francis Thicke and his wife, Susan, for over 30 years, and I can testify that he is the real deal. Francis is running for Agriculture Secretary because he has a sincere impulse to engage in public service for the sake of improving Iowa. Interviewing Francis gave me a chance to experience his brilliant grasp of complex, pressing issues. Francis has the best mix of qualifications, knowledge and experience that I could hope for in a progressive Democrat seeking to be Iowa’s Agriculture Secretary. I’ve come away from this interview convinced that he’s a viable candidate who has the integrity, humility and wisdom this state needs.
BFIA: Francis, I went to your [campaign] website and I found a lot of really interesting things about your background. It said that you got your master’s degree in Soil Science and a PhD in Agronomy with a Soil Fertility specialty, and after completing that PhD, you worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC and served as National Program Leader for Soil Science at the USDA – Extension Service, then you returned to full-time farming in 1992. So, tell us about that transition from working for government to going back to private farming.
Thicke: It was an interesting transition, Jay. As a matter of fact, my colleagues at USDA rolled their eyes and wondered out loud how somebody who worked for USDA as a bureaucrat could actually go farm, and some of them were taking bets about how long I’d make it. It was really interesting working at USDA in Washington because, in my position, I had the opportunity to travel around the country a lot and see agriculture in the West, the South, the Northeast, and all across the country, as well as in Europe. So, I learned a lot. I learned a lot, too, about how government works and how USDA in particular works, so it was an interesting experience. Coming back to the farm was an interesting transition. But it was like riding a bicycle, once you’ve been farming you remember what you’ve done and it was easy to get back to it again.
BFIA: Tell us about the farming background you had growing up and how did you come to know dairy farms?
Thicke: I grew up on a farm in a family of nine children. The farm was mostly dairy when I was young but we also had hogs, chickens and other animals — including sheep and ducks, at times. Over time our family’s farm became more specialized in dairy production, so I learned dairy first-hand from the family. However, the first time I went to college, I got a degree in music and philosophy. I then came back to work on the family farm for nine years. So I had quite a bit of full-time farming experience before going off to graduate school.
BFIA: Speaking of experience, I saw on your website that you have been appointed to many different boards. It said you served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the Iowa Food Policy Council, and the Iowa Organic Standards Board. Can you talk about being appointed to those and who appointed you to those?
Thicke: Those were all appointments by governors, two by Governor Vilsack and one by Governor Branstad. Probably the most interesting experience was serving on the Environmental Protection Commission. The EPC, as it’s called, is a nine-member citizen commission that has oversight over the Department of Natural Resource’s environmental programs. Serving on the EPC was an interesting experience. Probably the most interesting times had to do with the controversies over Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs as they are called. Frequently we had to deal with conflicts between people in the countryside who had been living there, often for their whole lives, and people who wanted to build a CAFO close by those residences. We heard a lot of first-hand accounts of people who said their quality of life was compromised, their health was compromised, their property values were reduced, and so on. The EPC sometimes was in the position of making a determination of whether or not a permit would be issued for the construction of a new CAFO.
BFIA: And also in terms of qualifications, I’m always interested to see what kinds of things a person could bring to a position like Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa. It says here [on the Thicke campaign website] that you served in other positions, like the USDA State Technical Committee, the Scientific Congress on Organic Agriculture Research, the Iowa State University Extension Advisory Committee, the Organic Farming Research Foundation Board of Directors, the Governing Council of the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research, and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board of Directors. What kind of experiences do you remember from those advisory boards that will help you in being the Secretary of Agriculture?
Thicke: I have had a lot of great opportunities to serve on boards and commissions and committees — and it has helped me to see how government works, and how private, non-governmental organizations work. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet people from all across the country through some of these experiences, so it’s been very good and has helped broaden my perspective in a lot of ways. I still serve on some of them now, but I have been getting off some boards as I’ve been trying to gear up my campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.
BFIA: It also says that you testified before the U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee twice, and I was wondering what kind of things you remember from that experience?
Thicke: They were interesting experiences. The last time I testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee was to speak about priorities for agricultural research in the 2008 Farm Bill. I was testifying on behalf of the interests of sustainable agriculture organizations. There were other panelists representing the interests of other sectors of agriculture. For example, one panelist represented the interests of multinational agribusiness corporations involved in agriculture. It was interesting to observe that that panelist had with him a whole contingent of lobbyists who would pass him notes as he was preparing and speaking — and it made me feel a little bit isolated since I was there by myself and had no other support. But I took a little risk at that point since I was the last on the panel to speak. The other panelists had read out their prepared speeches word for word, which the Senators read along from copies of the speeches they had received earlier. Although I had a prepared speech, which I handed in, I spoke extemporaneously, and started out with a couple of humorous remarks to loosen up the Senate Committee. This may have been a little unusual in a Senate hearing, but I think it went well because I wasn’t just reading and they weren’t just reading a copy of a written speech. I think it helped hold their attention and got them to listen better to what I was saying.
BFIA: Is this something that you would have to do as Ag Secretary of Iowa? Would you have to testify for different governmental organizations?
Thicke: Good question. I do think that there would be opportunities, as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, to interact with both the USDA and Congress to try to get priorities for Iowa, and Midwestern, agriculture in front of them, and help them understand our concerns and needs. One example, in today’s Des Moines Register there was an article about a new USDA program that was created to subsidize the development of second-generation biofuels, but that program is being largely subverted by paper mills and power companies, who are getting most of the subsidies. Through loopholes in the rules, the program is being diverted from its original intent, which was to foster growth of second-generation biofuels. If I were Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, I would step forward and talk to Iowa’s Congressional delegation and also to USDA — go right to the Secretary of Agriculture for USDA — and request that the loophole in the rules be closed in order to get the program back on track to foster the growth of second-generation biofuels. I think the Secretary of Agriculture from a state like Iowa would be in a perfect position to step forward and get the attention of both congress and USDA, and get that corrected immediately.
BFIA: Speaking of getting the attention of Congress and USDA, I’d like to hear about what you’d like to achieve. What would be your vision for being the Iowa Ag Secretary?
Thicke: We need to recognize that it’s taken decades for Iowa agriculture to get to where it is today. And, I’m not saying we need to change it overnight, but if we want to get somewhere, we need to know where we’re going. As the saying goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going you might end up someplace else.” My vision for Iowa agriculture includes more diversity on the landscape. Right now, two thirds of the surface area of Iowa is covered in just two crops every year, corn and soybeans. And, frankly, as scientists would point out, these are not very resilient crops. They’re vulnerable to, for example, the effects of heavy rainfalls, particularly during times of the year when corn and soybeans are not actively growing. Last year during the flooding, we saw not only that the soils under these cropping systems were not able to absorb as much rainfall as more resilient cropping systems could, but the corn and soybeans did not do well in protecting the soil from erosion. So, Iowa lost a lot of soil from this heavy rainfall and flooding. We need more diversity and more resilient crops on the landscape.
One thing I’m talking about here is the inclusion of cover crops to be grown during times of the year that annual crops, like corn and soybeans, are not growing. For example, a crop like winter rye can be planted to grow during the fall and spring months, which would help protect the soil from erosion and from the leaching of nitrate out of the root zone and into water resources. Another thing we can do to make our cropping systems more resilient is to include more perennial crops in our crop rotations. In the past, years ago, we used to have more alfalfa and other hay crops in rotations. These perennial crops protect the soil from erosion during the winter and during heavy rainfalls, and help keep nitrogen from leaching out of the soil.
We know that nitrate leaching from soils growing corn and soybeans is one of the main causes of the hypoxia zone [also called the dead zone] in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf’s hypoxia zone, which grows to about the size of New Jersey each summer, is caused by nutrient-rich water from the Mississippi River causing algae growth. When the algae dies, the algae decomposition causes the water to be depleted of oxygen, a condition in which fish cannot survive. If we had more perennial crops and cover crops on the landscape it would help reduce nitrate leaching from corn and soybean production, which would reduce loadings of nitrate to the Gulf of Mexico.
Also, I would like to see more animals integrated onto the landscape in ways that are ecologically sound. As an example, I would point out how we manage our dairy farm. Instead of our cows being in confinement and us having to haul all of their feed to them, and haul their manure back to the fields, we allow the cows to harvest their own feed by grazing, and at the same time they spread their manure on the land in a way that is ecologically sound. We have our whole farm planted to perennial crops of grasses and clovers. The cows graze all through spring, summer and fall. We have the pasture area divided into many small pastures. After each milking, twice a day, the cows go to graze a new pasture area, just enough to feed them for that one twelve-hour period.
There are many benefits to this type of system, but in the context of our previous discussion, the benefit is that it keeps the soil covered all the time, which helps hold the soil in place and keeps nitrogen from leaching out of the soil profile. So, if we design and manage more of our animal production systems so that they are ecologically sound though the use of perennial crops and grazing animals, we will create more diversity on the landscape.
BFIA: I saw you and your wife, Susan, on the cover of Touch the Soil magazine last year. Can you tell us about that article and more about your planting system of having a section for the cows to feed on each day?
Thicke: Yes, there was an article on our [organic dairy] operation in that magazine. Over the years, many articles have been written about our farming operation, focusing on various aspects of the farm, such as our grazing system, organic production, our on-farm dairy processing, and local marketing of our dairy products. As for our grazing system, we have about 60 small pastures, which we call paddocks. And this is not something we invented, about 25% of the dairy farmers in Wisconsin use this kind of rotational or intensively managed grazing. In our case, each paddock is about 2 acres, and often we’ll give the milking cows just half of a paddock for a 12-hour grazing period between milkings, depending on the time of year and how tall the grass is.
So, the cows rotate around the farm paddocks, and we have three groups of cows that are each separately rotating through the paddock system. One is the herd of cows that is being milked twice every day. There is also a herd of dry cows. Each mature cow has a 2-month dry period every year before they have their next calf. The dry-cow herd also includes the older heifers — female calves — that are growing up to become cows in the next few months. The third group is a group of yearling heifers that are younger — you might say the “teenagers” — that are in their own rotational group that moves around the farm.
Jay Mattsson, previously a Minneapolis school teacher, stayed in Iowa after getting his MA in Professional Writing. He had experience hosting an interview show on the radio every week for 18 months and worked as a book editor, associate producer and freelance writer/editor before joining a full-service audio-production company in 1998. Active in Democratic politics, Jay was a member of the Statewide Leadership Committee on the Obama for President Campaign.~
Check back next Wednesday for Part II of BFIA’s exclusive with Francis Thicke. Visit the candidate’s website thickeforagriculture.com