Sustainable Iowa Farm Energy & Francis Thicke
by Paul Deaton
Francis Thicke, candidate to be Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture, was in Solon, Iowa this week discussing his vision for Iowa food and agriculture with a group of local residents and the media. He said, “The reason that I am running is that I am seeing that Iowa agriculture is facing some major challenges today and we are not really addressing those challenges. We also have some great opportunities that we are not taking advantage of.” What he said was relevant to Iowans and reflected a common sense approach to improving our agricultural system. He also talked about the end of the era of cheap oil and its impact on Iowa agriculture.
During the interview with the Solon Economist, Francis Thicke said that Iowa agriculture's operations are tied to oil prices and in the current environment, farmers are “held hostage” to price spikes. The organic dairy farmer said reliance on “cheap fossil fuels” is not sustainable and that farmers must become more energy independent to remain viable. In a state where organic agriculture represents a small percentage of cropland, Thicke believes it is time for Iowa to move towards some of the lessons he has learned in his business despite resistance from agribusiness concerns and row crop farmers. He said energy prices will be the game changer as the era of cheap oil comes to an end.
His vision is that Iowa agriculture will make an orderly transition from current energy sources rather than reacting during the inevitable oil crisis. He said, “If we don't have a vision for where we want to go, we don't know where we are going.” Thicke's vision is outlined in his book A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture: Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century which has been reviewed by BFIA.
One of the key issues regarding energy is that farmers sell corn to produce ethanol, but then the ethanol is used primarily to fuel automobiles rather than to produce energy on farms. Likewise, the growth of wind turbine electricity generation has been a boon for Iowa, but farmers continue to buy electricity from the grid at retail prices, even though a turbine may be situated on their property. In both cases, the revenues from these renewable energy sources go primarily to large corporations rather than to farmers. Thicke would change that.
Thicke favors transitioning how the Iowa Power Fund is used to support agricultural energy production. While Iowa should protect its investment in ethanol production, Thicke says that no further public funds should be used to build new ethanol capacity in the state. Against the advice of some economists, ethanol capacity was over built compared to the market, resulting in the bankruptcy of some ethanol plants. Ethanol plays a role in Iowa agriculture and Thicke supports maintaining the current level of federal subsidies for corn ethanol. With respect to long term change, his position represents common sense, seeking to stabilize ethanol production, with which Iowa farmers are familiar, and simultaneously to move to the next generation of farm energy sources.
New investments from the power fund should go towards farmer owned, small scale electricity production. Smaller sized wind turbines and the next generation of biofuels represent opportunities for farmers to own some of the energy sources and to use energy generated at cost. At present, farmers buy from the electrical utility companies at retail prices. Farmer owned, small scale electricity production represents an opportunity for farmers to become more energy independent, reduce their operating costs and generate revenue as excess electricity is sold to the grid. Farmer owned electricity production would be more sustainable than constantly buying from the grid.
Thicke understands the challenges and opportunities of agriculture, but is also pragmatic about how to bring about needed change in a state where many farmers like things the way they are now. It is time for Iowa agriculture to begin to address some of the challenges on the horizon, something Francis Thicke is ready to do if elected as Secretary of Agriculture.
Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend
editor of Blog for Iowa. E-mail Paul