Francis Thicke on Farming Alternatives, CAFOs, and the Future of Farming
For the past several weeks, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) has been running portions of our interview with Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee), candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.
Francis and his wife, Susan, are organic dairy farmers who recently received the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. Francis is also a scientist and a highly respected thought leader on agricultural policy.
In this, the fourth post in a continuing discussion with Thicke, he talks about changing the minds of Big Ag with sustainable models, the rules regarding concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs), and his vision for the future of farming in Iowa. We believe Thicke’s views about agriculture are applicable not only to Iowa, but also to the nation.
If you are an Iowan who believes in sustainable farming practices, please join us in supporting and — most important — casting your vote for Francis Thicke in the fall. If you have questions for Mr. Thicke, please write a comment below or contact him by email at email@example.com . — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: Big Ag right now seems to enjoy the concept of larger farms, fewer fence rows, fewer trees in the landscape or anything that competes with crops for moisture and sunlight. Traditional farmers are eliminating a large amount of the biodiversity, not just in the soil, but in the air and water. There are just fewer creatures around. We’re also losing vast quantities of soil through erosion.
Yet many of the farmers we’ve talked to absolutely believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s very difficult to educate them that even small changes would be helpful over a period of time. How can anyone convince them to change?
THICKE: I think the way to do it is to find alternative models that are successful, that are ecologically sound, profitable, and socially responsible. And then try to expand adoption of those successful models, rather than try to fight what we’re not necessarily in favor of.
For example, in Wisconsin, grazing dairy farms — as opposed to confinement dairy farms — were considered new and innovative about 20 years ago. Grass-based dairies can be designed to be ecologically sound and productive and competitive. Research at the University of Wisconsin shows that grazing dairy farms are as profitable — or more profitable — than confinement dairy farms. Over time, about 25 percent of the dairy farms in Wisconsin have become grazing dairy farms again.
I speak at a lot of conferences on organic and grass-based dairy production. These are the kind of things that spread by word of mouth and by farmers visiting other farmers. We get lots and lots of visitors and tours to our organic, grass-based dairy farm. Farmers learn from other farmers to a great degree — often more than from books or educational programs. That’s one way to spread these successful models.
BPGL: There are a lot of agricultural models that are good in Europe, especially their standards for CAFO farming and water quality, cleaning up their rivers and such. But here in Iowa, Big Ag just won’t accept a lot of those standards. Big Ag seems to fight everything in the legislature that makes farming more sustainable.
Better Standards for CAFOs
THICKE: You’re right, but I think things are changing somewhat. I was surprised to see that Michigan recently passed a law that will phase out farrowing crates, chicken battery cages, and veal calf hutches. And California passed a new law that will outlaw tail docking, which is cutting off cows’ tails for the convenience of those who milk the cows.
The point is that we’re seeing more examples of society asking for better standards for how animals are raised. A recent article in the Farm Bureau Spokesman said that Michigan is the seventh state to ban gestation crates, the fifth to ban veal crates, and the second to ban chicken battery cages. California was the first to ban battery cages with Proposition 2. I think what we’re seeing here is citizens demanding changes in how agriculture is done.
BPGL: Do we have battery cages in Iowa?
THICKE: Iowa is the largest egg producer in the country, and most of the hens are in battery cages here in Iowa.
BPGL: That makes my skin crawl.
THICKE: Relative to confinement agriculture, I’m calling for local control and also calling for increasing the separation distances of newly constructed concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from homes and rural communities. I’m also calling for requiring construction permits for smaller CAFO units. Right now, construction permits are required for 1,000 animal units and above, which equates to 2,500 or more hogs. Currently, many of the new CAFOs are being built just below the threshold requirement for a construction permit. For example, many hog CAFOs are being built to house 2,490 hogs, so they don’t require a construction permit and don’t need to go through the whole process of the matrix, and so on.
BPGL: What is the matrix? Is that a method for calculating how many head are in a CAFO?
THICKE: The master matrix scoring system was created by the legislature in 2002. The matrix scores applications for CAFO construction permits in a number of areas, including water quality, air quality, potential effects on neighbors, etc. The maximum number of points in the matrix is 100.
In the political process of implementing the matrix, it got watered down quite a bit, so it only requires a 50 percent score to pass. Most CAFO permit applications pass routinely, and they generally all take the same easy points. So, although the matrix was intended to make the process of qualifying for a CAFO construction permit a little more rigorous, it is largely ineffectual.
The Future of Agriculture
BPGL: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Iowa agriculture?
THICKE: I am optimistic. Although Iowa agriculture faces some major challenges — such as increasing energy costs and greater severity of weather events due to climate change — we have the scientific knowledge and technology to make our farming systems more resilient, energy efficient, ecologically sound, and socially responsible. Iowa agriculture can become part of a new and prosperous green economy.
Change is inevitable. The question is, will we change through our own design and creativity, or will we be forced to change by circumstances that control us because we have failed to take preemptive action? I am running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. to help foster visioning, dialogue, and action to take Iowa agriculture into the future.
This is the end of our conversation with Francis Thicke.
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Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future (Top of Page)