[by Jay Mattsson]
Today in Part III of BFIA’s exclusive interview, Francis Thicke discusses his
ideas for a sensible, sustainable, and profitable agriculture future for the state of Iowa.
Click here to read Part I Click here to read Part II
BFIA: Do you see any way that agriculture in Iowa can become more profitable for farmers?
Thicke: I do. One problem in agriculture today is that farmers are being precluded from much of the profitability of agriculture. For example, in hog production, the hogs are increasingly owned by corporations, and farmers are being relegated to raising the hogs on a contract basis. Fewer and fewer farmers are raising more and more hogs, and, in today’s market, farmers are in danger of having their contract payments reduced or cancelled at the whim of the corporations that own the hogs. That scenario has already played itself out in the poultry market. Today it is difficult for poultry growers to make a living and pay the mortgages on their poultry buildings under the contracts dictated to them by the corporations that own the poultry the farmers raise.
Another example is large wind turbines sited on Iowa farms. It is good that we have so much wind power generation here in Iowa, but if you look at where the wealth — created by those wind turbines — goes, not much stays with farmers or local communities. Wind is a resource, much like oil wells or mineral mines, except wind is an inexhaustible resource. When wind turbines and wind rights are owned by out-of-state companies, and when much of the electricity generated goes out of Iowa, what we are doing is allowing our wind resources to be extracted from Iowa — and farmers and local communities are not profiting as much as they could be. Meanwhile, farmers who do not own the wind turbines sited on their farms are paying full retail rates for the electricity they need to power their farms.
I am advocating for mid-sized wind turbines on farms — turbines owned by farmers — to power farms and to provide greater profitability for Iowa farms. There would be many advantages to having wind turbines on farms all across Iowa. First, farmers could power their farms with the wind blowing across their land, and the excess electricity generated would be a source of farm profit. Second, distributed wind power production from turbines on farms across Iowa would provide more constant power generation — as weather fronts move across the state — than if most wind turbines are sited in just one section of the state. Third, distributed production allows electricity from wind power to be used locally, because electricity use is also distributed across Iowa. That reduces the need for costly power transmission lines, and reduces power loss from long-distance transmission.
There are models for how this can be accomplished. Europe — and some U.S. states — are using what are called “feed-in tariffs” to fund wind turbines on farms. The way feed-in tariffs work is that power companies are required to initially pay a high rate per kilowatt for power from locally owned wind turbines that are sited on farms or other private property. For example, the rate could be 20 cents per kilowatt for the first five years. That allows the owner to pay for the capital investment in the turbine. Then, the pay rate drops to wholesale level, currently about 3.5 cents per kilowatt, and the power company is able to purchase green power at a low rate for the life of the turbine. That makes it a win-win situation for both the farmer and the power company. A combination of tax credits and feed-in tariffs would spur investment in farm-scale wind generators.
Like wind power, the current structure of ethanol production precludes Iowa farmers from much of the wealth created. Farmers produce a commodity, corn, for which ethanol plants pay a low commodity price. Where ethanol plants are owned by local farmers, the wealth created stays in the community. However, many ethanol plants are not locally owned, and some have recently been bought up by a multi-national oil refinery company, in which case the wealth created from ethanol production leaves the state.
Ideally, biofuels production should meet three criteria: First, biofuels should be made from sustainable, perennial crops that protect our natural resource base. Second, biofuel plants should be locally owned and scaled to make local ownership feasible. Third, we should develop technologies to produce biofuels that can be used to power agriculture.
A major shortcoming of the ethanol industry is that we are using our biofuel-production capacity to produce fuel for very inefficient passenger vehicles. If the goal of ethanol production is to reduce dependence on foreign oil by reducing gasoline use, we could do that much more easily by increasing the gasoline mileage of passenger vehicles. The average mileage of passenger vehicles in the U.S. is 22 mpg (if SUVs are included). If we increased that mileage by just two mpg — to 24 mpg — we would save more gallons of gasoline than all the gallons of ethanol produced in the U.S. today. And, we are using a third of the U.S. corn crop to make that ethanol. With hybrid automobiles, we have the technology to double passenger vehicle mileage, and with plug-in hybrid technology we could quadruple mileage.
BFIA: In addition to wind energy, are there any other new technologies you can tell us about?
Thicke: Yes, there are a number of next-generation biofuel technologies being developed. One that I think is pretty exciting is pyrolysis, which is a method of heating biomass (any plant materials) to high temperature in the absence of oxygen, producing gaseous and liquid fuels, which can be converted to gasoline and diesel fuel. Studies at Iowa State University show that pyrolysis can be done on a farm scale. Imagine, if we could produce biofuels on farms across Iowa, we could power our farms with fuel produced on the farm, avoiding the ever-growing costs of fuel from imported oil. Another great plus for pyrolysis is that perennial crops — such as prairie plants — that are more protective of our natural resource base can be used as feedstocks for pyrolysis.
Granted, the technologies for pyrolysis — and several other very promising renewable energy systems — are still in development, but it is these kinds of sustainable systems, which are suitable to local scale and local ownership, that we should be investing in so their development will be accelerated.
BFIA: A few years ago, Iowa started instituting the Iowa brand label on organic produce. Companies talk about “branding” their products in marketing terms. Is there a way for the Ag Secretary to “brand” Iowa in the eyes of the world and how would you like the world to see the Iowa “brand?”
Thicke: That is something we could do. It is parallel to the idea of Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) which is a national program provided for by federal law. Under COOL, foods that are produced here in the U.S. are labeled as such, so people who wish to can buy U.S.-produced foods. The same could be the case with Iowa branded foods. The Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign is another approach being used here in Iowa to promote locally grown food.
More local food production would be a plus for economic development in rural Iowa. We eat about 8 billion dollars worth of food in Iowa every year, but estimates are that 80% of what we eat comes from out of state — which is astounding for an agricultural state like Iowa. But it means there are tremendous economic development opportunities out there for Iowa farmers to grow more of that food right here in Iowa.
The most recent agriculture census found that during the years 2002 to 2007 the number of small farms in Iowa increased by 4,000. It’s pretty amazing that we have more small farms in Iowa now than in the past. No doubt, a lot of these small farms either already produce some food for local communities or they could be well situated for doing so.
And if you combine the statistics on new small farms with data from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which found there are 64 grassroots organizations in Iowa that are working on local food production and marketing, it appears that we have the beginnings of an infrastructure in Iowa to grow more of our food locally.
Demand for locally produced food is growing. Consumers are looking for fresher and more nutritious foods. They are also increasingly concerned about food safety, and have more confidence in food safety if they know where their food came from. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a new initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” which encourages expansion of local food production.
I think we need more coordination to accelerate the development of local food systems in Iowa. As you mentioned earlier, I have served on the Iowa Food Policy Council. That council was created by Governor Vilsack, but it has become less active in recent years. If I am elected Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, I will revive the Food Policy Council and provide a home for it in the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The primary charge I will give the Food Policy Council is to make recommendations for how we can increase local food production in Iowa in order to foster economic development, improve the health of Iowa citizens, and increase biodiversity on Iowa’s landscape.
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 the final segment of BFIA’s exclusive interview with Francis Thicke. Visit the candidate’s website thickeforagriculture.com