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Francis Thicke is “the man” in the Midwest when it comes to sustainable farming and agriculture. He’s farmed full-time for 27 years, and his farm was certified organic in 1993. Francis and Susan, Francis’ wife, now operate and own an 80-cow, grass-based, sustainable, organic dairy farm near Fairfield, Iowa. The couple processes bottled milk, cheese and yogurt, and sells to their community. While Francis’ livelihood is tied to the farm, he’s also undertaken a myriad of other notable projects:
- He ran for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture with endorsements from notable sustainable smarties, such as Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben.
- He wrote a book titled A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture.
- He earned a PhD in agronomy, soil fertility.
- During the 2012 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, which ran from February 23 through February 25, Francis was named the 2012 Organic Farmer of the Year.
We recently caught up with Francis and asked him why and when he decided to go organic, what information has influenced his sustainable farming philosophy, and what current political policies he thinks will affect sustainable agriculture.
Organic Authority: I read that you grew up on a farm. Has your family always used sustainable practices or was that something you came to later in life?
Francis Thicke: I grew up on a dairy farm, actually, in Minnesota. And it was more traditional. Back then it was more diversified. We had dairy cows, and hogs, and chickens, and even some sheep there for a while. It wasn’t organic. As a matter of fact, my father in the ’60s started using more of the chemicals for farming. So in 1976, we converted the farm to completely organic, but in 1975 my brothers and I started organics on a full-scale, and in ’76 went all organic.
OA: What made you stick with organic farming? Obviously, your farm is organic still, but was it the results that you experienced by experimenting with organic farming?
FT: I don’t know for sure. It was a variety of things. One was that I felt that the chemicals really weren’t that necessary. And I had just come back from college, and I was kind of questioning everything. It got me thinking that everything wasn’t quite what it should be. And I began to think that maybe we could do better without having to use chemicals, and we found out that we could do just fine without them.
OA: You didn’t study agriculture in school at first. I believe I read you earned your degrees in music and philosophy? Did your philosophy degree help inform your farming philosophy?
FT: I especially was interested in the philosophy of science. How we know what we know. Basically, one of my philosophy teachers said question everything and don’t take anything for granted. So, maybe that made me more ethical and questioning.
OA: You also have a varied background — politics, farming and agriculture. Has your diverse background helped you create a unique managing style at your farm?
FT: I started in organics probably before I went back to graduate school. And I studied agronomy and soil science. So, I took that questioning, skeptical attitude with me as I studied agricultural science. And it helped me understand the whole process and how an alternative could work as compared to a traditional farming system.
OA: Are there any new innovations over the last few years that have made sustainable dairy farming more streamlined?
FT: I think that one of the main things for organic dairy farming is grazing. Having the cows out in the pasture and harvesting the feed, and spreading their own manure, that makes them healthier and I think it makes a better product for the consumer. And I think that a constant source of innovation and fine tuning; how to improve the grazing system, how to make the farm more self-sufficient all around.
OA: There are a lot of issues with industrial farming. Do you think if industrialized farms took on more sustainable practices that agriculture, in general, would be better off?
FT: Yeah, I think so, and I think one thing that’s going to push it in that direction is the high cost of fossil fuels. Because all agriculture is highly dependent on cheap fossil fuels, or industrial agriculture is dependent on cheap fossil fuels. We couldn’t farm that way without fossil fuels. And the price and even the availability over time of fossil fuels changes. If it gets scarce or more expensive, they are going to have go more towards sustainable types of farming systems.
OA: Are you seeing more young farms growing up and wanting to farm organically? I know there are programs like the FoodCorps, but do you see that more in the children — and the students, grad students — who come to your farm for classes?
FT: Yeah, I think there’s a whole new generation of students especially in universities. There’s a new generation of students who are interested in sustainable farming. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, it was really considered to be a very heretic thing to talk about sustainable farms or organics. You didn’t want to talk about organics at all. So organic and sustainable farming have pretty much come into the university system. And there’s USD funding for organic agriculture research. So, now organic agriculture is considered almost mainstream. It’s not a weird thing.
OA: Are there any current political policies that you’re passionate about that are going in the right direction and supporting sustainable agriculture? Or, possibly, in the wrong direction?
FT: One specific thing, and there’s a debate about it, the subsidies for agriculture are kind of falling towards crop insurance. And there’s a debate about if you’re given subsidies for crop insurance, whether you should have to follow a conservation plan. And as far as I think, it’s a no brainer that you should have to. But the mainstream, the lead farm organization, the farm bureau, has come out against it saying that they don’t want to have to follow a conservation plan, because they get subsidies. So that’s one specific thing.
There’s another thing, though, that’s probably more important, and that is the whole ethanol policy. I think we made a big mistake in putting too much public investment into building this ethanol industry that it’s put agriculture out of balance. Now there’s so much related to ethanol that it is causing problems for the animal producers. And it’s not a sustainable system.
It’s highly dependent on fossil fuels and there’s very little if any energy gained from making ethanol from corn. I think it’s a bad practice and that we can do a lot better. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t support any bio-fuels from agriculture, but I’m much more in favor of more of a local bio-fuel system, something like making bio-fuel on the farm, to power the farm rather than making ethanol for cars that go down the highway. And I’m thinking also that ethanol production should be using perennial crops that protect the soil from erosion and the leaching of nitrates.
Organic Authority would like to thank Francis Thicke and all of the sustainable, organic farmers and chefs whose work is providing healthy food for us all to eat. We honor you as being conscious stewards of our planet. And, we are thrilled to have you participating in our Earth Day event!
image: Will Merydith