Conventional vs. Organic: An Ag Secretary Race to Watch

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In Iowa, the race for Secretary of Agriculture has started attracting national attention. Two starkly different candidates are in a dead heat for the traditionally low-profile post, and the winner will be a bellwether of our national attitudes towards food and agricultural policy.

The incumbent is Bill Northey, an establishment candidate who receives donations from Big-Ag corporations like Monsanto, Sygenta, Walmart, and DuPont. He's been challenged by Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee), the owner of a grass-based organic dairy who's running for political office for the first time. "For the food movement, [this race] is the most important this election," sustainable-food guru Michael Pollan told me by email. "If Thicke can pull this off—and he's in range—it will send an important message nationally that even Iowa, the heart of corn and hog country, is eager for reform, and that the 'Farm block' is not as monolithic as people in Congress assume."

Here, I look at three crucial (and divisive) issues facing United States agriculture; in each case, the candidates have sharply divergent platforms.

The candidates' ideological differences are readily evident. Northey, who's also a full-time commercial farmer of corn and soybeans, poses for photos in front of a gigantic John Deere combine; his campaign logo features his name in that company's trademark green and yellow superimposed over an endless view of monoculture corn. Thicke's publicity photos show him out in natural pasture, tending to his Jersey cows by hand, or hauling old-fashioned hay bales on and off a rustic-looking tractor. Northey, who has an MBA, primarily views farms as economic producers; Thicke, who has a PhD in soil sciences, insists a focus on ecology and sustainability will pay off in 21st-century farming.

My goal was to speak to both candidates about their platforms, establishing their views on key agricultural issues facing Iowa—and the nation. Thicke granted me a long interview on his way to Iowa City to meet with 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who has since endorsed his campaign. The Northey camp initially expressed interest in participating, but eventually declined, citing the candidate's busy campaign schedule and his ongoing corn harvest. Still, Northey shares ideas through YouTube addresses on his website, and has gone on record in local debates with his opponent. Here, I look at three crucial (and divisive) issues facing United States agriculture; in each case, the candidates have sharply divergent platforms with little common ground in vision or approach.

NEXT: Big Ag vs. Farm-to-Table

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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