Recasting Corn

I remember the first time I started to re-think my ideas about the benign stalks of corn I’d been surrounded by since I was a child; when I started to wonder if this stuff was really as natural and good as it appeared. I’d been following the 2008 International Food Summit (yeah, I’m a groupie like that), and I ran across an LA Times article that described people protesting the Summit who were dressed as ears of corn. The ears of corn I had grown up with were cast as the symbol of an evil empire that pits nations seeking to expand the commodification of corn for biofuel against food-poor nations vying for their share.

Ears of corn playing the bad guy?

I began to realize more and more that in this era of environmentally ruinous commodity cropping, genetically-modified freak foods, high fructose corn syrup everything, and billions of people going hungry in part due to the shifting of our corn crop from food production to fuel production, the ear of corn has become a polarizing symbol of the many things going haywire in global food production systems.

This summer I visited a Democratic meet-up in Marion, Iowa, where a new candidate for Secretary of Agriculture is looking to rebrand our state’s chief export. But not through marketing–through a new vision of sustainable agriculture, one that posits the problems presented by an over-reliance on fossil fuels as an opportunity to reevaluate the future of farming in Iowa.

Democratic nominee Francis Thicke views our dependence on fossil fuels as a catalyst for change. He notes that fossil fuels have gotten us to where we are today, and with the recognition that these types of energies are dwindling, he sees a new era of progressive farming techniques taking hold in Iowa.

Francis Thicke knows farmers. That’s because he is one.

Of course to even get on the ticket in Iowa you better have a farming background, but Thicke’s Radiance Dairy, in Fairfield, Iowa, is not just any farm. It has been recognized as a leader in sustainable ag by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and others. Radiance is not among the much-publicized Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). His cows don’t live in confinement, they operate on a grazing system: Open the gate, let them out, and they fertilize the soil as needed. “They enjoy their work,” he laughs.

While Thicke might agree that commodity farming is a thorn in sustainability’s side, he points to one commodity as a catalyst for change: “Energy. That’s going to drive it. Farmers are smart enough to realize that we have to prepare for the future, and if we don’t we are going to end up in a crisis down the road.”

Ethanol fuels cars on the road and farmers want to sell it, but the prices paid to farmers are so low that only the biggest producers can survive. After subtracting the high cost of fossil fuels used in the farm implements producing the corn, for most farmers, the profits are next to nothing, a fraction of what they used to be. In his book, A New Vision for Food and Agriculture, Thicke claims that an increase of only 2% in the average gas mileage in automobiles would decrease demand (and prices) enough to eliminate the financial benefit of ethanol for Iowa farmers.

Ethanol production currently accounts for one-third of the corn crop in the US, approximately fifteen million acres. Thicke suggests re-allocating these acres to a biofuel crop that could be used to power agriculture itself, a crop that requires less inputs, improves soil health, and uses less fertilizer than growing corn.

What types of crops could lend themselves to this use? “Perennial crops (switch grass and prairie grass, for example) can be used to produce biofuels,” Thicke explains, “if we use them at a small-scale, on the farm or through a farmer cooperative. They will protect the soil and farmers can make a profit.” According to his vision, farmers will be able to produce fuel to power their farm and have an excess of high-value product to sell.


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Thicke also advocates for the increased use of farmer-owned, on-site, mid-sized wind turbines to power farms. These turbines would allow more farmers to benefit from the energy their land produces, rather than having to sell the energy to corporations which in turn sell it back to them.

But how do we trust the recommendation of a politician advocating the use of perennial crops for energy? Well, the guy holds a Ph.D. in agronomy, with a specialization in soil fertility.

And why should we accept his recommendations on other alternative energy solutions? Experience: His award-winning Radiance Dairy is powered exclusively by solar and wind energy.

Thicke’s message of sustainability doesn’t stop at energy. CAFOs are another area where he sees much room for improvement, a timely cause given that (as of this writing) eight Iowa CAFOs are currently under EPA investigation for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“CAFOs contribute to air quality problems, health problems, and a loss of property value,” says Thicke. He advocates for local control of these mega-feed lots, so local government can regulate where they are located.

Naturally, in Marion and other Iowa towns, the conversation inevitably turns to corn.

During the meeting I attended, a concerned farmer asked: “Do you think raising corn is sustainable given that fossil fuels are becoming more scarce?” Historically, there is only one answer for a politician running for Secretary of Agriculture in the nation’s #1 corn-producing state. But Francis doesn’t flinch.

“As a farmer, I’d like to think that corn is doing a good job,” he explains, “but the evidence is that it’s not.” He continues, “It seems to me that we will reach a point when corn is not a profitable crop. Corn-based foods are affecting us physically…but we are so locked into this corn as a crop, and we haven’t found a good way away from it.”

Perhaps a start might be an increase in local food production. Thicke asserts that he will reinstate the Iowa Food Policy Council that operated from 2001-2004. Thicke sat on the Council all four years, and sees it as a service that connects state agencies purchasing food with the farmers who grow it.

“We travelled all over when the Council was started and got them started all over the country,” he says. “We want to take the best ideas that are out there and see how we can adapt them for Iowa.”

EPA investigations, polluted waterways and farms run by fossil fuels are expensive business. Meanwhile, in a time when 80% of Iowa’s food is imported from out of state, local food initiatives have lots of room for growth–the money-making kind.

Economist Dave Swenson of Iowa State University notes that if Iowans increased their fruit and vegetable consumption to the recommended five servings per day, and Iowa farmers produced that food for just three months of the year, 4,095 jobs would be added to the Iowa economy.

These are some hopeful numbers for an industry stuck in a negative trend, and this fall’s election for State Secretary of Agriculture presents a real choice between two opponents with very different approaches.

In 2006, Republican Bill Northey narrowly defeated the Democratic nominee, Denise O’Brien, who famously travelled the state in a biodiesel-fueled bus. Far from getting laughed out of rural town halls, the biofueled O’Brien received 49 percent of the popular vote in her loss to Northey.

Hungry for another shot at the office, the Democrats have again chosen to nominate a candidate that puts land stewardship, conservation and renewable energy at the top of the agenda.

Elections for State Secretary of Agriculture will be held November 2. Find out more about both candidates by visiting and

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