Conventional vs. Organic: An Ag Secretary Race to Watch

Big Ag vs. Farm-to-Table

Thicke champions regional, sustainable farmers and food systems, while Northey takes pride in Iowa's export capacity via resource- and chemical-intensive commercial production.

In a Web address titled "Iowa's Food Production," Northey begins: "We're not only number one in corn, soybean, and hog production—we're number one in egg production." He's referring to the hallmarks of industrial agriculture—commodity crops and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—that do offer big production but also require heavy use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals, as well as large amounts of fossil fuels. "In fact," Northey continues, "in north-central Iowa we have one farm that produces all the eggs for all the McDonald's east of the Mississippi, including Hawaii and Guam." It's unclear if Northey's referring to one of Jack DeCoster's many large operations in that part of the state, but he is unambiguous about his support for the system associated with that farmer—highly concentrated farms with large commercial export capacity. For Northey, success is measured in units shipped, and being "number one" means being the biggest.

Although Northey embraces mass export of Iowa products, Thicke wants to see more food grown and consumed locally.

Thicke agrees that Iowa will always have "a tremendous amount of land for commodity production," but he insists that both farmers and consumers benefit when they participate in smaller regional markets. His own farm is an example: Radiance Dairy products are popular in Fairfield, Iowa, its nearest city, but Thicke has resisted offers to scale up and distribute in other parts of the state. "Our goal isn't to have a certain number of cows or expand into a certain market," he told me. "We want to service our local community with a high-value product. We set our prices so that we can make everything work."

Thicke wants to help farmers develop the means to process their own food, which he feels empowers them against increasingly unstable markets. Radiance is one of the few small dairies with on-farm processing equipment, and as a result, Thicke has avoided big processors and distributors who set demand, and prices. When dairy farmers were having record losses last year because of low market prices—and dairy processors were making record profits—Radiance Dairy kept selling at their standard rate, and loyal customers kept buying. "We never changed our prices," Thicke said. "We were fully unaffected." With access to on-farm or local farm-to-farm mobile processing equipment, Thicke feels, "more of the profits can stay with the farmer instead of being taken by middleman corporate monopolies."

Although Northey embraces mass export of Iowa products, Thicke wants to see more food grown and consumed locally. "In Iowa," he said, "we export 80 to 90 percent of the food we grow. We import 80 to 90 percent of the food we eat. If we can grow more of what we eat in Iowa, we could have fresher, healthier, safer food. We could have more diversity on the landscape. And it would be an economic development—food dollars would stay local and circulate back into the local economy." He also wants to instate a food policy council, which would "be charged to, for example, connect farmers to local high schools and university cafeterias. And in general, facilitate connections between farmers and consumers."

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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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