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Greener Pastures: A Vision for Healthy Farming

October 26, 2012

Flyer | Watch Video | LivableFuture blogpost

"A chicken is like a mini-Tyrannosaurus", said Francis Thicke, dairy farmer, singing the praises of the hens who work for free on his farm. "If a mouse runs by a chicken, one pick and a shake and the mouse is dead. They're vicious little things."

Visiting the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Wednesday from his 80-cow, grass-based, organic dairy near Fairfield, Iowa, Thicke explained that his hens comprise the best fly-patrol squadron for his cows. Because of them, he doesn't need to use pesticides against the flies and every hen lays an egg a day, to boot.

A soil scientist with a career history that includes positions at USDA and a run for Iowa State Secretary of Agriculture, Thicke, PhD, spoke at the School about the benefits and challenges of organic farming. Proposing "ecological agriculture" as the best and perhaps only solution to the end of the cheap fossil fuels era, he shared some of his successful strategies and insights into farming. In addition, he proposed some ingenious technology-based methods for conserving and creating energy, all of them harnessing the forces of nature, instead of working against them.

A guest of the Center for a Livable Future, and the featured speaker of the Polly Walker Ecology Fund Lecture and Food Day Event, Thicke began his talk by sounding the alarm about climate change, dwindling oil supplies, and the depletion of aquifers and other resources. "In Iowa, since we've begun farming," he said, "we've lost half our topsoil".

The most harm done to agriculture by the Industrial Age, he said, is that advances in technology and industry have made it possible for us to segregate our livestock and our crops. The abundance of cheap oil, fossil-fuel-based fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides have given us a false sense that creating corn monocultures, for example, or beef monocultures, is more efficient and profitable than allowing animals and crops to be integrated on a farm.

The antidote, he said, is to adopt what he calls ecological agriculture, also known as agroecology. In this model, we rethink and re-design agriculture, instead of creating more technology that depends on industrial agriculture. An example is methane digesters: While it might seem like a good idea to capture the methane created by cattle raised in confinement and convert that methane to energy, the whole notion relies upon having cattle in confinement; transitioning to a pasture-based model, on the other hand, would address the energy issues and also be economically viable, ecologically sound, socially responsible, and humane.

Thicke is a big fan of manure, too as long as it's the right kind of manure. Livestock waste that comes from animals in confinement and is stored in enormous manure lagoons is useless, and therefore waste. But manure that is dropped by animals in the fields, where it can undergo an aerobic process of decomposition and enrich the soil, is a boon to a farm. Instead of being a nuisance, Thicke said, manure should be a resource.

Among many ecologically sound solutions described and proposed by Thicke were the methods of using cover crops, perennializing, biodiversity, integration of livestock on the landscape, and ingenious solutions such as pyrolysis and biochar for closing the loop on energy use on the farm.

On the farm that Thicke runs with his wife, Susan, they process all the milk and cheeses on the farm and market them in Fairfield, Iowa, at grocery stores and restaurants. They sell all their products within a five-mile radius of the farm a "truly local food shed", as noted by Center director Robert S. Lawrence, MD.

"In Iowa, it takes about 1,400 acres of farmland to make a living," said Thicke. "But on my farm we do it with 200 acres by diversifying and doing it ecologically."