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