Conventional vs. Organic: An Ag Secretary Race to Watch

Energy

Both candidates are outspoken about their energy platforms. Northey proposes increasing wind power in the state, noting that 20 percent of Iowa's electricity already comes from wind. He also hopes further investment in wind technology will bring new manufacturing dollars and jobs to the state. Northey was also instrumental in the building a wide foundation of corn ethanol plants across the state, though some went bankrupt during fluctuations in the oil market during 2008, and are now owned by out-of-state companies. Northey does not mention concerns about global warming or shortages of fossil fuels in his campaign materials, so it seems these are not a priority for his ticket. In his view, alternative energy is primarily an investment opportunity and a tool for job creation.

Thicke takes his energy stance a step further by pledging to help farmers take control of their own energy costs.

Thicke, on the other hand, suggests that changing weather patterns and increasing oil scarcity will inevitably force change upon American agriculture as it stands today—and he wants Iowa, and the nation, to be prepared. Like Northey, he's a proponent of wind and corn-based ethanol, as well as solar—Radiance Dairy uses solar power to fill and heat a 4,000-gallon water tank, and to transport its water around the farm.

But Thicke is most vocal about incentivizing innovations in biodiesel. He feels that the next generation of plant-based fuels will not come from annual crops like corn, but perennials like sorghum wheat and prairie grasses. Perennial crops save fuel because they don't require annual tilling and replanting; they also strengthen soil integrity by reproducing the conditions that developed fertile Midwest prairies in the first place. Thicke sees this as especially important in Iowa, where farms lose at least one and a half tons of topsoil every year to erosion. Prairie grasses also require virtually no fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, and they also make the land more diverse—which help crop health, water quality, soil integrity, and harvest yields.

Thicke takes his energy stance a step further by pledging to help farmers take control of their own energy costs. An existing problem with wind power is that although turbines exist on farms, most are owned by independent tenant contractors—the farmers themselves still pay a high premium for their wind power. As with food processing, Thicke use technology to help farmers avoid middlemen and control their own fuel and energy costs. He suggests helping farmers build wind turbines they actually own, or helping develop mobile biodiesel processers that can be individually owned and operated, or moved from farm to small farm. "The technology is very promising, and out there already," he told me. "We can help farmers own the process and own the product."

NEXT: Confined Animal Feeding Operations

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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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