Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Francis Thicke speaks to farmers visiting Radiance Dairy, the business he runs with his wife, Susan, near Fairfield, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Francis Thicke (standing on his tractor) speaks to farmers visiting Radiance Dairy, the organic farm he runs with his wife, Susan, near Fairfield, Iowa. Photo: Rich Schuler

Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) 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 third post in a four-part discussion with Thicke, he discusses ways to encourage the growth of small farms and local food production.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) presents Thicke’s views about agriculture because they are applicable not only to Iowa, but also to the nation.

Thicke has announced his candidacy for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in the 2010 election, and BPGL endorses him. We urge Iowans who believe in sustainable farming practices to join us in supporting and — most important — casting your vote for Francis Thicke next fall. If you have questions for Mr. Thicke, please write a comment below or contact him by email at fthicke@iowatelecom.net . — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Grow More Fruits and Vegetables


BPGL: How can we increase biodiversity in agriculture?

THICKE: On the federal level, we have the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which is being implemented now. The CSP, which was authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, provides farmers with incentives to adopt resource-conserving crop rotations. Those incentives will help farmers go beyond growing just corn and soybeans. The incentive payments will help defray the cost of adding perennial and cover crops to crop rotations.

The CSP has the potential to be a very good program that will be helpful in increasing diversity on Iowa’s landscape. The sign-up period for the CSP was recently completed, and farmers are just getting enrolled in the program right now. The CSP does not pay a lot of money — about $10 to $20 dollars per acre — for farmers to do things like use less tillage, use cover crops, and include perennial crops, such as hay, in their crop rotation.

Tom Harkin (D: IA) was the champion for the CSP in the Farm Bill. In the previous Farm Bill, five years ago, the CSP was in a different form. It didn’t get implemented very widely, and it never got funded fully. So, Congress went back to the drawing board. I think that the new version of the CSP will be better funded and more successful.

BPGL: As farmers increase the biodiversity of crops in the state, how do you see that affecting the local economy?

THICKE: It will be positive for the economy. In fact, one major issue that I’m speaking about in my campaign is increasing local food production. For perspective, we eat about $8 billion worth of food in Iowa each year, but estimates are that about 80 percent of what we eat is imported from out of state. So we have a tremendous economic development opportunity available for us to grow the food we eat right here in Iowa.

Farmers' markets and roadside stands are excellent places to see the biodiversity of Iowa's crops.

Farmers' markets and roadside stands are excellent places to see the biodiversity of Iowa's crops.

Dave Swenson, economist at Iowa State University, has done an analysis that indicates how large the economic development opportunity is for local food production. Swenson’s analysis found that if we in Iowa were to eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and if Iowa farmers produced those fruits and vegetables for just three months out of the year, the production and marketing of those additional crops would add over $300 million and 4,000 jobs to Iowa’s economy.

BPGL: Would that replace corn or soybean production?

THICKE: It would offset a small amount of corn and soybean production, and that offset was taken into account in Swenson’s economic analysis. It would take less than 32,000 acres — about one tenth of one percent of Iowa’s farmland — to produce all those fruits and vegetables.

BPGL: What do we need to do to get farmers to produce enough fruits and vegetables for Iowans?

THICKE: We can do a number of things. One I’m advocating for is something similar to what the state of Illinois has done to try to jump-start local food production there. Just this year, The Illinois Governor signed a bill that sets a goal of 20 percent of all food purchased by state-owned facilities, like universities and prisons, to be produced in Illinois. Another goal of the new law is for 10 percent of all food purchased by state-funded facilities, like schools and hospitals, to be produced in Illinois. The state has control over the budgets of a large number of institutions and wants a percentage of the food they use to be grown in Illinois.

Support Local Foods


BPGL: That would open up markets for people who might want to raise and sell produce.

One of Thicke's primary concerns is local food production. This poster is from his campaign website. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

One of Thicke's primary concerns is local food production. This poster is from his campaign website. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

THICKE: Yes. And Illinois’ new law will also create a Local Food Council that would help to organize to meet this goal. Here in Iowa, we already have a lot of infrastructure for local food systems. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has identified 64 grassroots organizations in Iowa working on local food production and marketing.

Most of them are working individually on their own. If we could coordinate those efforts, it would increase their effectiveness. Under Governor Vilsack, Iowa had a Food Policy Council that was working on these kinds of issues, on developing local food systems. However, that council has been dormant in recent times.

One thing I would do, as Secretary of Agriculture, is revive the Iowa Food Policy Council and give it a home in the Iowa Department of Agriculture, to help coordinate development of local food systems. I think that increasing local food production presents a real opportunity for rural economic development, increased biodiversity, and better nutrition for Iowans.

Encourage Small Farms


BPGL: Is Iowa seeing an increase in small farms? And if not, what can we do to make that happen?

THICKE: In the last agricultural census, from the years 2002 to 2007, Iowa gained 4,000 new small farms. It’s pretty amazing. We know some of these are producing food for local people — or they certainly have the capability to do that. It is also noteworthy that the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found in a survey that there are 64 grassroots organizations in Iowa working on issues related to the production and marketing of local foods. So, if we can coordinate our efforts here, I think we can make a lot of progress in developing local food systems in Iowa.

If elected Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, I will revitalize the Iowa Food Policy Council by providing it a home in the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. I will request that the Council make recommendations on policies and practical strategies for accelerating the development of local food systems in Iowa to spur economic development, provide fresh and healthy food, and increase biodiversity on Iowa’s landscape.

We have a beginning farmer program in Iowa. Perhaps that program could provide special incentives for farmers who are going to produce food for local consumers.

BPGL: Not long ago, when I interviewed Angie Tagtow, a Food and Society Fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, she mentioned that an unusually large number of Iowa farmers are going to be retiring in the next 10 to 20 years. Is there something policy-wise we can do to help young farmers gain a foothold on small farm entities, instead of letting those properties get absorbed into huge corporate conglomerates?

I‘m sure the value of the farm to a couple that’s retiring is a lot more than a young person just out of university would normally be able to afford. It seems you’d have to provide special financing to enable new farmers without a lot of money to be able to purchase a farm.

Iowa farmers could potentially produce all of the fruits and vegetables needed to feed the people in this state — and on only 1/10th of 1 percent of the farmland.

Iowa farmers could potentially produce all of the fruits and vegetables needed to feed the people in this state — and on only 1/10th of 1 percent of the farmland.

THICKE: That’s right. And many of these farmers who are retiring are on larger scale farms. But that would be a lot more land than you would need for intensive vegetable or fruit production. We could provide incentives for people to get started on a small scale.

BPGL: It seems that it would be possible to have several beginning farmers start small farms on the same space as one large, corporate farm. For example, if you were looking at helping new farmers get started, you could have ten people each raising produce on 1,000 acres, whereas the retiring farmer might have been raising corn on all 10,000.

THICKE: Ten acres would be more than enough to get started in market gardening. Even less might be adequate. For example, there’s an educational program sponsored by an organization called SPIN Farming that provides technical assistance to new farmers who want to grow produce for local sales.

Using intensive methods, they have a program to gross $50,000 annually on just half an acre of land. (The term SPIN stands for Small Plot INtensive farming.) So, it may not take a lot of land and capital to start up small farms that could produce food for local consumers. Some financing might be helpful, but what would probably be more helpful is assistance with creating links between producers and buyers of food across Iowa.

End of Part 3 in a continuing conversation with Francis Thicke.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods (Top of Page)

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

My 5: Francis Thicke, Organic Dairy Farmer, Political Candidate

Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Francis Thicke is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. He is also an accomplished scientist and an award-winning farmer. Thicke’s list of credentials is impressive, including selection by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation as a Policy Fellow in their Food and Society program, work as the National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, and a current seat on the board of directors of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Most recently, Francis and Susan Thicke were selected as recipients of the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The couple will be honored at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture on December 5 at the 9th Annual Iowa Organic Conference. Together, they own and operate Radiance Dairy near Fairfield, Iowa.

Thicke (pronounced TICKee) is also a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Thicke to learn about his vision for improving agriculture in Iowa. Not surprisingly, given his background and his interest in sustainability, Thicke has a lot of ideas that we thought you would find interesting — regardless where you live. Blue Planet Green Living endorses Thicke’s candidacy for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

This is the first in a series of conversations with Francis Thicke. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

BPGL: Why did you decide to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture?

THICKE: I see a lot of challenges coming down the road for agriculture in Iowa, as well as opportunities. I think we need new vision and new leadership to meet those challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

One challenge is escalating energy costs. We saw last year how oil prices went through the roof. And that meant that input costs for agriculture went through the roof. Of course, oil prices came back down again, and the input prices are coming down.

But oil economists tell us we’re going to see this roller coaster of spikes and valleys in oil prices continue. And they’re going to keep trending upward.

That makes it difficult for an agriculture that’s so dependent on oil-based inputs. When oil prices are dropping, but farm input prices have not yet dropped, you get a mismatch of peaks and valleys, and it could be a real disaster for agriculture.

The bottom line is that we need to get off this treadmill of oil. We need to look for ways we can become more efficient in our agriculture and power our farms with locally and sustainably produced energy.

BPGL: What suggestions do you have for doing that?

THICKE: I have several. One thing is that agriculture is producing corn for ethanol that’s used in cars that run on the highway. That is not a very efficient use of our biofuels.

The average mileage for passenger vehicles, if you include SUVs along with cars, is about 22 miles per gallon. So, we’re putting ethanol in these very inefficient vehicles, and we’re not powering agriculture with our biofuels.

Just to see the irony of it, if we could increase our fuel mileage by only two miles per gallon on average, from 22 to 24 mpg, we would save more fuel than all the ethanol we produce in this country, which takes about one-third of the U.S. corn crop. We’re not using our biofuels energy-producing capacity very efficiently.

I would like to see future biofuels development be twofold: One, it uses perennial crops, which are more sustainable, more resilient cropping systems. And two, we target biofuels to power agriculture.

BPGL: Describe how you would use perennial crops for biofuel. I assume you’re talking about using a different process than is used to make ethanol with corn.

Pyrolysis — A New-Old Technology


THICKE: There are some promising new technologies on the horizon that are being developed now. One is called pyrolysis. It’s not a new process; it’s been around for years, and was used to make fuels during World War II.

Pyrolysis is a process of heating biomass at high temperature in the absence of oxygen. The result is gaseous and liquid fuels, which can be converted to gasoline and diesel fuel. Now there is some research showing that this can be done on a smaller scale than the huge-scale ethanol plants. It can be done on a local, cooperative scale, or even on a farm scale. If we develop the technology of pyrolysis to work on a local, or farm scale, we could use biofuels to power agriculture, making farms more energy self-sufficient, and keeping more profit on farms and in rural communities.

BPGL: Is pyrolysis more efficient than the process used to produce ethanol now?

THICKE: Pyrolysis produces more biofuel per unit of biomass than ethanol does. It’s a more efficient biofuel-production process.

BPGL: What are you cooking in pyrolysis?

Theoretically, any biomass could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

Perennial prairie plants produce a lot of biomass and could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

THICKE: Cellulosic materials. You could cook corn, but any organic material will work. What I’m suggesting is that we grow perennial crops, prairie plants, for example, or miscanthus, which is a perennial plant that produces a tremendous amount of biomass. It’s been looked at a lot in university research.

Miscanthus requires very little input, such as fertilizer, and it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. It’s a minimal-input cropping system. The advantage of using perennial crops for biofuels is that perennials do a much better job of protecting the soil from erosion and from the loss of nutrients — like nitrate and phosphate — to water resources, where they become pollutants.

BPGL: So there’s no burning of the cellulosic material. You’re just heating the plants and turning them into fuel.

THICKE: Yes, but at high temperature. It’s not really burning per se, it’s transforming. The first stage of normal combustion turns solid or liquid fuels into gases through super heating. Then the hot gases ignite and burn in the presence of oxygen. The byproduct of normal combustion is carbon dioxide and water. That first stage of combustion is a form of pyrolysis.

When using pyrolysis to make biofuels, the environment remains depleted of oxygen. Combustion does not go to completion, so the end products are combustible gases and liquids. The liquid product of pyrolysis is called bio oil, which is somewhat like crude oil. It depends upon how you control the conditions during pyrolysis whether you get more gaseous or liquid fuels. These fuels can be transformed into gasoline or diesel fuel.

BPGL: Who is doing the research on this?

THICKE: Iowa State University has a project, but there are projects all over the country. Google “pyrolysis,” and you’ll see that there’s a lot going on.

BPGL: So, the energy it takes to create the fuel comes from the same fuel that you’re producing?

THICKE: Yes. An exothermic reaction is one that gives off heat when you burn something. But pyrolysis is slightly endothermic; it takes a certain amount of heat input to make the reaction occur. So you would have to burn some of the fuel — a small portion — to keep the high temperature.

Increasing Efficiency of Biofuels


BPGL: If it takes energy to heat the cellulosic material, is it that efficient?

THICKE: Yes. I’ve asked scientists working on pyrolysis about this. They said that the overall net energy is more per unit of biomass than you get with ethanol production. If you take a biomass material — even corn — and use pyrolysis, there should be a slightly more efficient gain of energy than if you made ethanol from it, including the input of heat.

So, first, we need to become more efficient and sustainable in biomass crop production by using perennial cropping systems, which are resilient and help protect soil and water quality. Second, if it can be done on a small scale — and a research project at Iowa State University indicates that it can — then you can do it at a farm scale. And that means, you could produce these fuels right on the farm. There is some research going on that indicates you could maybe even make it into diesel and gasoline on a farm scale.

BPGL: Can you cook any type of carbon-base material? Any type of grasses? It doesn’t have to have a sugar base?

THICKE: No, it doesn’t. Carbohydrates, lignins — any biomass, any reduced-carbon compound like that will work.

BPGL: Such as wood, trees, things like that?

Wood could be used to create biofuels through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

Wood can be transformed into biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

THICKE: Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, a few months ago, there was a story in the Des Moines Register about a man who had a pickup truck with a small pyrolysis unit on the back. He was throwing wood in there, and he was driving on the highway, powering his pickup truck with pyrolysis. He could go 80 mph down the highway, he said.

It’s a demonstration, and I certainly wouldn’t think it would be an efficient way to fuel cars. But, it does show that you can do it on a small scale. If you do it on a farm scale, the neat thing is that you could power your farm with biofuels.

With corn-based ethanol production, farmers produce corn, which is a commodity, for which they get paid wholesale prices. To power their farms, they have to buy fuel at retail prices. If they could produce fuel on their farms, not only could they power their farms, but they could sell any excess fuel they produced at nearer to retail price. So this would be good rural economic development, in my mind.

Corn-based ethanol production has brought some economic development to Iowa. But, corn is not a resilient crop on the landscape. It leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion and the loss of fertilizer nutrients, which can become pollutants to water resources.

Also, when large corn-ethanol plants are owned by outside interests instead of being owned locally, agricultural wealth is extracted from rural communities. For example, some of the ethanol plants that went bankrupt last year were bought up by an out-of-state, multinational oil-refinery company. That puts the same industry that retails fuel to farmers in a position of extracting the profits of value-added biofuel production. So, you can see the potential economic advantage for farmers if they could produce biofuels on the farm to power their farms. They would retain much more wealth in their own rural communities.

BPGL: Is the pyrolysis technology ready for farmers to use on their land today?

THICKE: This is in the research and technology development stage. I think one of the Iowa projects was funded by the Iowa Power Fund. It’s something that universities should be picking up and working hard at.

What I advocate for is that we make a concerted effort to try to develop these kinds of technologies. It would help advance both rural economic development and sustainable farming systems.

BPGL: There are so many things that are carbon based that could be burned. Everything from animal feces to secondary crops.

THICKE: A big one would be garbage waste. A lot of the garbage waste — like wood and cardboard and things like that — could be used. Even grass clippings, tree leaves… It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Biochar – A Promising Soil Amendment


THICKE: A third byproduct of pyrolysis, besides the gaseous and liquid fuels, is called biochar, which is similar to charcoal. Biochar functions like humus when added to soil. It has properties that help soils hold nutrients, and it increases the water-holding capacity of soils. It also can be used for virtually anything charcoal is used for — a whole variety of uses, industrially.

Biochar has a lot of promise for use as a soil amendment, which is something that you would use to improve the soil. Normally, people think of soil amendments as fertilizers or lime, or anything that you add to the soil to improve it. Biochar doesn’t break down easily, so it persists for a long time in the soil, and it increases soils’ beneficial properties.

There are some ancient soils in Brazil, called terra preta. People have wondered over the centuries why these soils were so productive. They are dark, black soils that are highly productive with very little input; they never seem to stop producing.

Geologists and soil scientists are speculating that many centuries ago, some culture had a way of doing something similar to pyrolysis; they made a type of biochar, and put it into the soil. The biochar made terra preta soils tremendously productive. So we don’t even know the extent biochar would be useful as a soil amendment, but it’s going to be exciting to see what potential it has.

Preventing Erosion with Cover Crops


BPGL: Earlier you mentioned multiple challenges to agriculture. What is another one?

THICKE: Another challenge coming down the road is weather extremes due to climate change. Climatologists are telling us that’s what we are going to be seeing, when we talk about global warming or climate change. The way it will affect agriculture is that we’re going to be seeing extremes like droughts and flooding, high-intensity weather events. Iowa’s current cropping systems are not resilient enough to be able to handle that.

Last year, with the hard rainfalls and flooding, nearly 10 percent of Iowa’s cropland suffered soil erosion rates of 20 ton per acre. Two-thirds of Iowa’s land surface is covered in corn and soybeans. So our cropping systems are not very resilient, and they don’t absorb rainfall as well as perennial cropping systems would.

Soil Erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

Soil erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

BPGL: Is there a way at the state level to promote changing the monoculture that we see in Iowa farming, so we can get more biodiversity in our crops?

THICKE: Yes, there are things we can do to make our landscape more biodiverse and resilient. There are several ways we can approach this. One — and we can do this through programs at the state level — is to try to get more cover crops on the land. For example, after corn and soybean crops are harvested in the fall, the land is not well protected from soil erosion and nutrient leaching. If a cover crop, like rye or hairy vetch, were planted to grow during late fall, winter and early spring, soil erosion and nutrient leaching would be reduced, which would help reduce hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one thing we can do.

BPGL: Are cover crops something that farmers can sell, as an added source of income?

THICKE: With cover crops, you normally don’t harvest and sell them. They are intended to be returned to the soil, to build the soil. They are planted to protect the soil and to absorb nutrients after harvesting corn or beans. In the spring, before planting annual crops again, cover crops are returned to the soil. As the cover crop decomposes in the soil during the summer, it provide nutrients for the growing summer crop. The added residue on the soil from the cover crop also helps protect the soil from erosion.

The cover crop could be killed in the spring either with tillage or through no-till farming methods [without plowing the plants under the soil] using a herbicide like Roundup. That would be a popular way conventional farmers would do it.

BPGL: Would you use that method — no-till, with Roundup?

THICKE: As an organic farmer, I wouldn’t do that. But that’s a common practice. It would be good for protecting the soil, and conventional farmers are going to be using the Roundup herbicide anyway.

However, there is new research being done now on no-till organic farming, which looks very promising.  In no-till organic farming you use a cover crop, like rye, for the purpose of suppressing weed growth, in addition to the reasons we talked about earlier. The rye crop is killed in the spring with the use of a special tool called a roller/crimper, which is a roller with sharp fins on it that knocks down, crimps and kills the rye plants.

BPGL: I would think even conventional farmers would like that idea.

THICKE: That’s a good point. They might. They would need special equipment, but this is something that’s being developed. There’s some research being done at Iowa State University on no-till organic farming. It’s been developed out east, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It’s a coming thing that could be done by conventional farmers.

BPGL: It seems like there’s a job opportunity for someone to have a crimper that they take from farm to farm.

THICKE: Right, it could be. However, a roller/crimper would not be a real expensive piece of equipment, compared to the other field equipment farmers use. This is something that needs to be demonstrated on a wide scale so that farmers can see it work. They are not going to want to do it unless they see it working.

End of Part 1 in a continuing conversation with Francis Thicke.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion (Top of Page)

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

My 5: Francis Thicke, Organic Dairy Farmer, Political Candidate