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

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."

NEXT: Energy

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

CAFOs

Confined animal feeding operations are common in Iowa, and are controversial for polluting local water supplies and allegedly helping raise "superbugs," pathogens like MRSA that are resistant to antibiotics. They are also notorious for keeping animals and their manure in tightly confined spaces—which can contribute to outbreaks of disease in both animals and humans. But a less-cited problem with CAFOs is that they make life miserable for rural individuals who have long lived in their shadow—and who have never had a say over where the facilities would be built, or how many.

"After the egg recall disaster, after the damage hog confinement has done to so many communities, people in Iowa have more complicated feelings about agribusiness than many Americans assume," Pollan told me. "They want to see concentrated agribusiness power broken up, and to regain some local say in where new animal factories are located." When I went to Clarion, Iowa, to report on August's egg recall, I found the same situation: residents who lived within a mile of the offending facilities were powerless to control the massive fly and odor problems that had developed since the CAFOs were built. Their homes have lost their value, their quality of life has been ruined, and they are stuck.

Thicke has come out in strong support of local regulations targeting CAFOs. "I want to help restore to local county governments the authority to have some say in where these CAFOs are sited," he told me. "And we need to look at how we can go further to protect rural residences—increasing the separation distances of new CAFOs from rural residences and communities, to get more protection for people out in the countryside."

In a debate with Northey this fall, Thicke made similar promises, to audience applause, saying, "It's just plain democracy." He also advocated taking animals out of confinement and "integrating them into the landscape in ways that are ecologically sound." In response, Northey disagreed, saying he is in favor of single statewide laws for CAFO zoning management. "I think it's important to protect neighbors, all across the state, with the same set of rules," he said. "A statewide system. I believe, without that ...you would have real trouble siting new facilities out there." In other words, local control would make it more difficult for big producers to site, or build, new CAFOs. In this regard, Northey's sympathies appear to be with Big-Ag producers.

NEXT: Where the Race Stands

Where the Race Stands

According to the most recent financial statements available, Northey has out-fundraised Thicke $273,590 to $60,772 in 2010—and the current difference is likely greater. But while the Thicke campaign gathers momentum—the race was within the margin of error in a recent poll conducted by his campaign—he will probably face a negative media blitz in the final days of the election. "No doubt the industry will throw a lot of money against him in the final days," Pollan said, "as they did against Denise O'Brien, four years ago." In that election, the Northey camp ads—complete with sinister slasher-movie music—branded O'Brien a "radical" with a "fringe agenda." Already, the Northey campaign has shown the financial wherewithal to air TV spots in Iowa. The Thicke camp has produced a TV ad, but cannot yet afford air time for it.

With only days left until the election, no clear victor in sight, and enormous differences in policy at stake, the Thicke/Northey battle for the nation's agriculture capital rages on. For anyone interested in food or farming, this hotly-contested race is the one to watch in 2010.

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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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