DG 14 Transcript- Green From the Ground Up
Elaine Ingham: Criteria that have been used over the last fifty years to breed plants, it has been for, really from a human’s point of view, inappropriate things. It hasn’t focused on nutrition it’s focused on making really fast growing nutrition poor plant material. We all know if something is growing really fast it’s gonna be weak. It’s not going to have the structural capacity. It’s not going to have the nutrients. As we’ve destroyed that biology in the soil we’ve destroyed the ability to present the plant with the precise balance of nutrients that it requires. So we’re kinda shooting it in the foot in two ways at the same time. We’re destroying the things that seed the plant directly from soil nutrients and we’re choosing for things that have inappropriate characteristics that we’re choosing for. We haven’t chosen for nutritious broccoli, or nutritious tomatoes, or nutritious salad greens. The consumer needs to be demanding more nutrition. Right now, probably the only thing that you could really get that kind of nutrition in would be organic, you need to demand organic. There’s been some really inappropriate science that’s been done to try to make a statement that organic isn’t any different than conventional, but good science that’s being done shows that there are strong, very important differences in that nutrition. And that’s what you should be feeding your family right now because other conventional approaches we just don’t have nutrition. Or at least all the best data we’ve got is strongly suggesting that.
Francis Thicke: We’re a grass based dairy farm, and of course most dairy cows otherwise are in confinement. So it’s kinda the irony that it’s the nature of cows to move and the nature of grass to stand in one place, but we’ve made most cows stand in one place and made the grass move to the cows. When the cows harvest their own feed, they of course save a lot of energy because then you don’t have to harvest the feed and haul it to the animals and haul the manure back out to the field. As I mentioned, we also process our milk on the farm, which is quite unusual. Most other dairy farms send it to central processing.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Dream Green Series, with co-hosts Stuart Tanner and James Moore on solar-powered KRUU-FM. Iowan’s creating a greener tomorrow, today. A journey of discovery across the state featuring innovators, cutting-edge projects and communities leading the way to an energy independent and sustainable future. Visit our website at greeniowa.org.
James Moore: And this is James Moore. You’re listening to the Dream Green Series right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM. We are also archived and downloadable, and check us out at any point at greeniowa.org. Today we have the pleasure of an interview with really one of the trailblazers in soil. To be specific, Elaine Ingham is joining us by phone. She also is an affiliate professor here at Maharishi University of Management in sustainable living. But she is an American soil biology researcher. She’s the founder of Soil Food Web Inc. She’s recognized around the world as a leader in soil microbiology and I had the great pleasure of speaking with her a little over a year ago, and what I learned in that short time was enough to really make my hair stand on end, the good way, from inside out. She also is a key author of the USDA Soil Biology Primer. And just this year Professor Ingham was named as the Rodale Institute’s Chief Scientist which is an amazing appointment, and we will learn about that and much more today. Stuart, would you like to start?
Stuart Tanner: Well, yes. Talking about the good Earth, it’s great to have this opportunity to talk to you today. Soil is a subject that is very close to us, in fact we walk on it all the time and we survive because of it. So, it’s crucial to all our lives and that’s why it’s called earth, and the planet’s called Earth I guess. But I wanted to ask you, basically, what soil was? It’s something we sort of think we’re familiar with but actually when you think about it it’s quite a complex thing, I know that much, and a lot goes into it. Just some overview of what soil is would be very good, very useful place to start.
Elaine Ingham: Yeah, that’s a very good place to start. Indeed, and we need to differentiate between soil and dirt. And a lot of people don’t even realize there is a difference. Soil is a living thing. And if you don’t have the living components within that soil then you’re gonna have a very hard time growing anything in that soil. Dirt is soil that has had all of the life, the living part of it, destroyed. Or, the only life you’ve got left are the diseases, and the pathogens and the bad guys if you will. So, when we’re talking about soil it includes all the living organisms that your plant requires. So bacteria, fungi, good guy fungi, not the bad guy fungi, most people know about the bad guy fungi that cause disease and such, but those things, the bad guys will be out competed by the beneficial fungi and so we’ve gotta have the good guy fungi in there. We need to have protozoa, because without the protozoa we can’t get nutrients released into a plant available form. Bacterial feeding nematodes, fungal feeding nematodes, again both of those eat bacteria or fungi, their preferred prey groups and release nutrients in a plant available form. The predatory nematodes whose absolute favorite food, generally, are the roots eating nematodes that think most growers would know all too well about the root feeding nematodes because they cause billions of dollars in plant damage in agricultural systems around the world. We’ve got to have micro-arthropods, but you want the good guy arthropods, not the bad guys. And how do you select for all of these beneficial organisms being present in the soil? It’s got to be aerobic in your soil, you can’t have compaction use like for the bad guys, not the good guys. Soil then also contains the organic matter to feed the bacteria, the fungi, and then the bacteria and the fungi basically feed the protozoa, the nematodes, the arthropods, the earthworms, all those other beneficial organisms that we need to have in there. Organic matter holds on to water. The microorganisms in your soil build structure. They’ve gotta have organic matter, they’ve gotta have sand, silt and or clay. The mineral fractions of the soil need to be there so you can give them minerals being made available. A lot of times people will talk about soil as having no nutrients of some kind. Your soils are phosphorous limited, you have no phosphate left in your soil, and that’s absolutely not the case. There is no soil in the United States that lacks all the mineral nutrients that you need to grow plants. Every soil that we have in the U.S. does not need inorganic fertilizers. And yet we’re told all the time that we do need those things. We go throw out some inorganic fertilizer and we see our plants grow better, but you really should learn when you do that, is that your soil, well, you don’t have soil. If you put inorganic fertilizer down and you see your plants respond, you don’t have soil you have dirt. You’re gonna have diseases, you’re gonna have insect pests, you’re gonna have root feeding nematodes. And so it’s almost like a little test that you can do. If I throw down some inorganic fertilizers and my plants respond, whoa, you’ve set your stage to not be sustainable, not be productive. So, soil contains all of those things. We do have to balance the microorganisms for the plant you’re trying to grow. Mother Nature pushes the whole successional process from bare soil to old growth forest by changing the ratios of the fungi, and the bacteria, the protozoa and the nematodes. And so, if you get the right balance of those organisms, you’re going to grow the plant you want to grow without weeds, without diseases, without insect pests and without having to put on inorganic fertilizers. We’re talking about really truly sustainable systems if we actually truly have soil.
ST: It’s fantastic to hear that description of soil. One of the things I wanted to ask you about is just our history just in terms of our relationship to the soil. Because previously we would have a certain type of agriculture, a certain way of thinking about the soil, and through history that would have maybe recently, twenty, thirty years ago changed. And then we start using fertilizers on a very large scale, and reducing genetic diversity of the crops and so on. And obviously that changes relationship to the soil, and now maybe we’re in another phase where our understanding of the soil, in a sense our cherishing of it is in a new phase. I wonder whether you would talk to us a little bit about that.
EI: It’s a complex topic that you just asked me to summarize the course of humans’ interaction with the soil, the course of agriculture through the ages. But, yeah, you go back in time and it’s really tillage that started the downward loss of the organisms in our soil, and then that had led to the disease and insect problems which led to the inorganic fertilizers and the pesticides which destroyed even more of the life in the soil which led to more diseases more pests which destroyed more life and you can see the downward cycle that we’ve found out through the last thirty to maybe fifty years. When we’ve really started pouring on the toxic chemicals, we can go back in time and you start thinking about the very dawn of agriculture, you know what, how did we do that? We took a stick and made a line through the soil, good organic matter, good life because of course nobody previous to that nobody had been destroying the organic matter in there. And so, good fertile soil that was growing lots of things and you drop your seeds into that furrow, cover up those seeds and they grow very well. If you keep growing in the same spot for a while you may indeed start to harm the biology in that soil, and then you start seeing that, well, maybe putting down some fish or putting down a few foods to put that organic matter back to makes it certain that you have the organic nutrients that you need to grow the organisms to help the plant. And so we did agriculture for very long periods of time in the same place, growing more or less the same crops. And it’s not until you see heavy use of manures where the salt balance may be very out of whack, where you start to accumulate salts in the soil, the water becomes salty, and then whole civilizations crashed and were destroyed because they lost their agricultural base. And in the United States when Europeans came across from Europe, we would generally only plow once a year because it’s a lot of work to be out there with a plow. You’re pushing a plow into the soil, you’re trying to keep the mule going in a straight line down your field and you didn’t till more than once a year to put in the seed, to put the seeds in. And so we didn’t very rapidly destroy our soil when we were not doing that much tillage. We were not replacing quite often the nutrients, the life back into the soil and that’s where people really ran into problems. Where, like Thomas Jefferson describes putting in tobacco as his first crop and the tobacco removes all the nutrients out of the soil. No. It didn’t remove all of the nutrients out of the soil, what he did was destroy all the life in that soil, by the tillage, by the compaction, by the management practices that they were performing. And so they couldn’t grow tobacco there anymore, so they went to corn and pretty soon then doing these practices that weren’t sustaining of the life in their soil. Then they had to go on to other crops, and eventually they couldn’t grow any decent crops so they would let it go back to forest and then they would have to grow someplace else. So, it’s that process of destroying the life in the soil, of tilling and not replenishing that is what has kind of led us down this pathway to, gosh, you know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I don’t think anybody intended to put our soils into the condition of dirt, but that is often what we have done. So we come back from WWI or WWII and we notice that if we throw our munitions, we don’t know what to do with the TNT, we don’t know what to do with these high nitrogen explosives materials and somebody threw them out onto the soil and noticed that all the weeds died and threw out something else, and they noticed all the plants grew better. And thus was born the chemical pesticide and inorganic fertilizer business. And it’s interesting to me that they changed the definition of conventional agriculture from one where everybody did the organic approach, everyone was doing organic agriculture up to that point you start to put in these inorganic fertilizers. You put in the pesticides and there, how advertising departments started calling that conventional agriculture and no one objected to their use of that term and so today we often call that chemical agriculture approach that management approach, people call that conventional when in fact it’s not conventional at all. The way we’ve always done agriculture up to about fifty years ago was the organic approach. We need to understand the importance of the biology in the soil and we haven’t really had the methods to measure the biology in the soil until, well, that’s what I did for my PHD work was to start to understand how to assay for bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro-arthropods, micro-rhizome fungi, earthworms in the soil and come up with an understanding of how all of those organisms are interacting or relating and how important they are in helping you grow plants.
JM: Well, for new listeners we are speaking with Dr. Elaine Ingham and she is an American soil biology researcher and also founder of Soil Food Web Inc. you can check her out there if you’d like. She teaches all over the world, travels widely, and inspires me every second. I don’t know when you speak it just makes such sense. I mean, this is the foundation from which everything comes from. The earth, the soil, compared to dirt. I wanna ask you, Dr. Ingham, what are you finding in terms of your travels all over? Obviously it makes sense that if the soil is rich what comes out of the soil will be rich, and higher in nutrients and all that. What are you finding as you travel around?
EI: Gosh, you know agriculture is quite different in different parts of the world, but probably one of the overarching conclusions that we come to is that if we get the biology back into the soil, if you get the organic matter improving we will increase nutrient content in the plants that we’re growing and so in the corn, and the soybeans, in the wheat, and the vegetables we have higher nutrition for human beings or the animals that you might be feeding. We’re increasing protein contents by fifteen to twenty percent in the food that we’re producing were increasing calcium concentration by twenty percent or more. Many nutrients are absolutely not even really detectable in the chemically grown foods. Whereas we can find normal concentrations in terms of what that plant should have we actually find normal concentrations where we grow that plant material with organic or sustainable approaches. A lot of the things that we really have to understand is kind of the twist that chemical agriculture will put on the things that we’re doing. Often when I go to talks the chemical people wanna focus in on yield, and what I like to focus in on, especially now that I’m here at Rodale and we’ve actually got solid data, thirty years of data on comparison between corn, soybean and wheat production, organic methods, chemical methods, and what was showing is that always the organic systems result in the grower having much more, at least double, the amount of money in their pockets as compared to the chemical growers. Now, I know we get a premium for organic food but the premium that you get is not accounting for that full doubling of the amount of money that people are making following the sustainable approaches. So, the USDA for example just came out with data that showed that growing under chemical methods a grower would end up with $20,000 in their pocket, whereas an organic grower would end up with $45,000 in their pocket. Going organic, well you don’t have to go all the way organic, you want to move in that direction and you’re going to reap benefits. You’re going to reduce water use if you really get all that good organic matter and the biology back in your soil we can reduce water use by up to seventy percent. That means you either are not gonna have as much water to grow the same amount of crop or you can grow three times the crop that you used to. We reduce disease so you don’t have to be buying the pesticides, the fungicides, the nematocides, all those kill-it, nuke-it kinds of chemicals really are not necessary and you don’t have to pay for those sorts of things. We don’t need the inorganic fertilizers if you are getting the biology back into the soil, and functional. Most growers, in fact, could actually learn within just a short time, a day or two, how to assay for their own organisms in their own soils. We offer classes through Soil Foods Web, and we’re going to start offering them through Rodale on how to be assessing your own organisms in the soil. It does take getting a microscope, and there’s some pretty inexpensive microscopes out there about $350 for a good microscope with a camera. You can be sending pictures in to us and we’ll help you identify your organisms. One day of training and we can get you pretty well trained in to be recognizing most of these organisms and then when you see something that you don’t know what it is, you take a picture of it and you send it to us and we identify it for you. So it’s really it the grasp of most growers to start doing these conversions so that they can make more money or keep more of their own money in their pockets.
JM: That’s amazing. Just want to remind listeners also we’re talking about the Rodale Institute. That’s a non-profit dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach. Dr. Ingham has been named the chief scientist there. Stuart?
ST: There was a report in the Journal of Horticultural Science, and it was looking into nutrition of vegetables and fruit. Some interesting results there, analyzing it, comparing it to vegetables and fruits from about fifty years ago and seeing a reduction in nutrition from around five percent to up to forty percent lower in minerals in those fruit and veg. Now, it quotes various reasons for that, one of which is genetic dilution effect in which selective breeding is used to increase yield but actually leads to a decline in protein, amino acids, as many as six minerals in for instance broccoli, or other veg more than fruit it seems, where you may be choosing for yield but if you get larger veg it doesn’t mean they have more nutritional value, in fact most of the time they don’t because there’s a lot of what they call dry matter, you know carbohydrates, I’m sure you’re aware of all this. But that then actually also means that they harvest it more quickly and they don’t have as much time to draw the nutrition from the soil. I wonder if you could talk to us about that because obviously that seems a critical relationship there, between what you choose to plant, what choices you’re making in terms of selective breeding, and the health of the soil, and the nutrition you get out of your fruit and veg.
EI: Well, it’s quite true that criteria they have been used over the last fifty years to breed plants have been for, really from a human’s point of view, inappropriate things. It hasn’t focused on nutrition it’s focused on making really fast growing nutrition poor plant material. We all know if something is growing really fast it’s gonna be weak. It’s not going to have the structural capacity. It’s not going to have the nutrients. So we need to make certain that if we’re going to choose for those criteria, we’re either gonna have to improve nutrient cycling in the soil so these faster growing plants have the nutrients made available to them so that they are fulfilling the nutrient capacity within that plant so we are getting in nutrition that we require. And as we’ve destroyed that biology in the soil we’ve destroyed the ability to present the plant with the precise balance of nutrients that it requires. So we’re kinda shooting it in the foot in two ways at the same time. We’re destroying the things that feed the plant directly from soil nutrients and we’re choosing for things that have inappropriate characteristics that we’re choosing for. We haven’t chosen for nutritious broccoli, or nutritious tomatoes, or nutritious salad greens. We’ve chosen for things that grow really fast maybe produce a larger yield. Now the consumer needs to be demanding more nutrition. Right now, probably the only thing that you could really get that kind of nutrition in would be organic, you need to demand organic. And that’s what you should be feeding your family right now because other conventional approaches we just don’t have the nutrition or at least all the best data that we’ve got is strong suggesting that. Now, I’ve seen some science that has been done that says there’s no nutritional difference between sustainably grown or organically grown plant material and conventional, and you really have to be careful about the methods that they’ve chosen. They went to the grocery store and they took the most horrible looking organic fruit off the shelves, stuff that has been sitting there for five, six days and then they chose the conventional stuff that was picked right off the tree. And we already know that the longer something sits around in the grocery store the less nutrition it’s gonna have. So there’s been some really inappropriate science that’s been done to try to make a statement that organic isn’t any different than conventional, so when you’re reading those studies you really have to go and look at the methodologies that have been performed so that you’re not being kinda sucked in by poor science that’s trying to prove something that the good science that’s being done shows that there are strong, very important differences in that nutrition.
ST: I just wanted to move on because obviously we’re in the Midwest, and talk about something that relates closely to us being a state that grows a lot of corn, a lot of soya bean. One of the things is that when you listen to what you’re saying and when you analyze it all it would seem that everywhere would want to shift across to organic. Everywhere would want to reintroduce practices that maintain the health of the soil that lead to greater nutrition. So, how are we doing on that? And if we’re not doing so well, why would that be?
EI: There’s a lot of fear on the parts of growers to move in a more sustainable fashion because who’s got the money, especially in the United States what companies have so much money they’re pulling in, what is it the petroleum companies that are pulling in $300 billion in profits on an annual basis, or is that quarterly? I can’t remember. They’ve got so much money to control the advertising that they’re doing, and American’s especially are so influenced by the commercials they see on television, the ads that they see in newspapers, the ads that they see in their magazines, that it’s hard to compete with that kind of mental control of the American population. And it even happens around the world. The people who have so much money are the chemical companies and they use that money to try to poo-poo the idea that sustainable, good, healthy soil is actually going to make a difference. And so it’s dollars making it difficult to do this transition. But if the public demanded it, it would happen. The fastest growing component of agriculture is that organic sector. It’s continuing to grow by leaps and bounds every year, whereas the rest of the agricultural world is stagnant or losing ground.
JM: In Iowa sixty percent of the corn going for ethanol. This idea of growing food for oil and that’s coming under question now really seriously for the first time whether subsidies are gonna continue with that, maybe there is an opportunity for rethinking right in our neighborhood.
EI: You expend a gallon of energy to make biofuel and you get, what is it, 1.2 gallons or something like that, gosh the economics there are a little bit frightening. So, I’m not sure that that’s really the wisest way to go with our land, to be making fuel we need to have a more productive a better conversion rate if we’re going to spend all that crop land to grow fuel instead of food for people, instead of food to feed our animals. I think that there’s a really big problem with that whole way of trying to provide energy to people.
JM: Now I think Fred Kirschenmann said it was 1:1.5 in terms of something very close to that up at the Leopold Center.
ST: Those were the very best results.
EI: Most people don’t manage to do the very best.
EI: It’s going to be more average. Economically, energetically I just don’t think that’s the way to go. You’ve got to find something that produces more oil per unit effort going in to it.
ST: Since we are in Iowa and we are growing a lot of corn and soya, obviously, and as far as I understand it the soils in Iowa historically are excellent. Do you think in some ways even if it was corn for food that there would be a better way to be using the soils of Iowa?
EI: If we can make higher yields and better nutrition we could probably not use as much of the land for growing food. Are there other crops that we ought to be growing throughout the Midwest part of the United States, so alternative crops that we could grow? So think about that, it would give us as much economic return for the grower and provide other foods other commodities we might need. But I think there’s a lot of that kind of consideration that needs to go on and not just grow miles and miles and miles of corn. I did want to mention that because I have been working at the Maharishi University, that we do have a class at the Maharishi University that we will be offering every year called Living Soil, and in that one month long course we go through the whole process of how do you take soil that has been abused for a very long time and would be very difficult to very rapidly and easily move into this sustainable approach and we teach people how to do that conversion within a very short period of time. We can take soil that is really, well, it’s probably dirt at this point, we can convert dirt back into soil, highly productive systems within a one month period of time we can teach you how to go through that transition and it does involve learning how to use the microscope, how to make proper compost and how to bring back this life very rapidly and very easily into the soil.
JM: I’m so sorry to say we’re out of time here. It is always a delight with a capital L to speak with you, Professor Elaine Ingham. We didn’t even talk about the compost tea brewing manual, but we’ll have another opportunity down the road. Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us, it’s nothing but inspiring to think of soil nutrients, and more than anything, that we’re not past a point of no return and this is one we can start doing yesterday and see results today.
JM: So thank you so much. This is the Dream Green Series. We’ll be back in just a moment.
JM: And here we go once again driving through corn fields, would almost be as if we’re doing a very special program series in the state of Iowa. Now the corn is looking a little bleak as we travel along now. With the drought that’s been going on following, you may remember early in the series talking about all the rain that we got. But this is James Moore with Stuart Tanner we’re on our way to visit in the country to a dairy farmer an organic dairy farmer named Francis Thicke. Francis also ran for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture this past time, he’s been an educator and he runs Radiance Dairy Farm. We’re gonna learn about a lotta different things there as we head out to his farm. Stuart, how you doing today?
ST: Very good James, and it’s interesting to be going along to a dairy farm in Iowa because obviously all around us as we’ve been travelling is corn and soya beans. So, just goes to show you can have a dairy farm, folks, and there’s one just outside Fairfield. It’s going to be very interesting. Now, I remember you saying James that you’re a little bit scared of cows, are you going to be okay?
JM: I think so. These are very gentle cows. They often come toward you. And as a little kid to see a big herd, I just remember jumping over the fence and my uncle laughing hysterically. I was pretty good at pole-vaulting in those days.
ST: Well, I have to admit, I have run away from a herd of cows myself as a kid, so there you go it happens to the best of us.
JM: Well, thank you. We are close to our destination. We are looking forward to talking with Francis Thicke all about the great work he’s doing here very successfully so for many years as a matter of fact with Radiance Dairy and other issues. He’s also a PhD in soil technology. Stay with us, we’re almost there. You are on the journey of discovery that is the Dream Green Series with Stuart Tanner and James Moore. We are broadcasting on solar-powered KRUU-FM and we’ll be back in just a moment.
JM: And here we are pulling in to Radiance Dairy, beautiful fence, beautiful farm, a little pond as we, just really quite idyllic in a way. Then there are some cows as we speak and a big rooster. What do you say about that Stuart?
ST: You know funny thing about big roosters is I was walking through a jungle in Southeast Asia once and in the middle of this vast area of forest a rooster crossed the trail right in front of me followed by a bunch of hens. And it was just like a farmyard rooster, and you know that’s actually where they came from, jungle fowl. But it was extraordinarily strange to see them in the middle of a rain forest.
JM: You wondered where the dairy farm was perhaps. We are here, we’re going to get out and we’ll be checking in with Francis Thicke momentarily. Stay with us right here on the Dream Green Series.
ST: James, stop chasing the chickens. What’s the matter with you, man?
JM: That’s a rooster.
ST: The rooster has run across the straw to his hens, by the looks of it. Yeah, I have to say it was very strange in the middle of a jungle listening to a rooster calling out first thing in the morning and you’ve got the gibbons going whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop and then that sound.
JM: And Francis Thicke on the way over here. Francis Thicke, good morning! How you doing?
Francis Thicke: How you doing James?
JM: Great to see you. We were just listening to the rooster do its thing here. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Francis Thicke. We have a little four-legged retriever here too, who’s this?
FT: That’s Ruby.
JM: Hey Ruby. Ruby looks a little bit like someone I know named Honey at the station. We were thinking of bringing her.
FT: She’s not really so little though, she’s a little overweight.
JM: She’s a little healthy. Great to see you, what a beautiful day we have here at Radiance Dairy Farm. We drove in and saw such a beautiful setting, your house is so beautiful, the pond.
ST: Do you know what this reminds me of? As a kid when you were learning to read English you had these books that you’d read English from and they always had these really idyllic kinda pictures of things, and one would be the farm and the farmhouse, and the barns, and the roosters and everything. It really exists! This is that place that was in that idyllic kinda picture book for learning English as a kid. It’s amazing.
JM: While we stand out here let’s just ask first of all, how long have you been here? Give us a little background just on the farm and your situation here.
FT: Well, Radiance Dairy has been around since 1980, started out with two cows. And Susan, my wife, and I took it over in 1992, we had about twenty cows then and were on a different farm. We moved to this location in 1996 which we outgrew the last one so we had to move to this one. And so, we’ve kind of incrementally grown as the market has grown over the years.
JM: Wow, so tell me a little bit about the market, how it’s grown. Obviously you’re represented well in Fairfield with Radiance Dairy. Give us just a sense of your products and we’ll talk about the product makers in just a moment.
FT: Well, we only sell in Fairfield we don’t actually deliver more than a four mile radius from the farm itself. The products, we have bottled milk, whole milk, 2% and skim milk. We have whipping cream, and yogurt, and a jack cheese, and a paneer, and a ricotta cheese.
JM: Hmm. It must be close to lunch time.
ST: Yeah, that’s fantastic. You know a range of products all of which I’ve tried and enjoy. So I’m one of your customers in fact, living in Fairfield. You know, it’s a kind of operation a number of years ago people would say ‘well, you can set that up. It sounds great. It’s a great ideal to try and live to. But really, do the economics of it work against the bigger operations with their economies of scale and all the rest of it?’ It’s actually I suspect quite something to have a model like this and to make it work and to make it economic. So, how have you achieved that? And you must get a lot of interested people saying that, how have you achieved this?
FT: That’s a good question. We get a lot of vistors from farmers around the Midwest who are looking at what we’re doing and interested in doing it. And as you know, Fairfield has a unique population base and so until about ten years ago I used to say well it can’t work anywhere but Fairfield, but as more and more interest begin to grow in local foods, I begin to say well maybe you know if you live near a big city or a university town because I didn’t want to encourage something that would fail so I would try to discourage it. But now there are about a dozen on-farm dairy processors in Iowa, and about ten years ago we were the only one.
JM: Wow, that’s amazing. So, obviously the proof is in the pudding. What is it that you do here that is different that does work so well?
FT: Well, if you say different from a conventional dairy farm, several things. One is that we are organic and another thing is that’s very important is we graze our cows. The cows get fresh grass twice a day every day during the summer, however now we are in a pretty severe drought, we’ve been nine weeks with only half an inch of rain and so the pastures are pretty much dormant. So we’re waiting for the rains. Otherwise we’re a grass-based dairy farm. And of course most dairy cows otherwise are in confinement. So it’s kinda the irony that it’s the nature of cows to move and the nature of grass to stand in one place but we’ve made most cows stand in one place and made the grass move to the cows. When the cows harvest their own feed they of course save a lot of energy because you don’t have to harvest the feed and haul it to the animals and haul the manure back out to the field. As I mentioned, we also process our milk on the farm which is quite unusual. Most other dairy farms send it to central processing.
JM: Which means more cost for transporting and so forth. It means you have more hands on deck here? What does that mean?
FT: It does. Counting Susan and me we have about six people working on the farm, not all full time. But that’s a lot more than, for a small farm, than normal in Iowa. A thousand acres of farm is hardly enough for someone to make a living anymore.
JM: Yeah, tell us again acres and how many cows?
FT: Well, we milk about eighty cows and have about 150 head of cattle of all ages.
ST: Now, I have to say the Radiance Dairy milk basically tastes about five times better than normal milk. That reminds me, I lived in Switzerland once and we used to have the milk that was brought down from the farm in churns in the morning and the cook used to rice pudding out of that and it was ambrosia, it was the food of the gods. You’d eat that rice pudding and you would feel amazing, bliss throughout your entire body. And Radiance Dairy is that standard of milk. So, it is amazing. Why is it? What is the combination of factors that makes it so much better in terms of flavor and so on?
FT: Well, one thing is that we have Jersey cows, and Jersey are a breed of dairy cows that they are smaller in stature and they give less milk per cow but they give much richer milk. So the milk is higher in protein and higher in milk sugars, and higher in butterfat so even in the skim milk where all the butterfat is removed has more solids in it, more body and people can notice that difference. Another thing is that when cows are on grass the milk is higher in certain nutritional components, for example, omega three fatty acids which are beneficial in congegated lineal acids and some vitamins and so on. So that’s another beneficial side that you may not be able to taste, but actually there are some flavor differences when the cows are on grass.
ST: Maybe we could have a bit of a walk around. Your operation is multi-dimensional and it’s not only about the quality of the produce, being organic, but you have a number of energy saving devices I think as well.
FT: We do. As a matter of fact, we are going to be having a field day here this weekend and part of the field day is going to feature renewable energy. And so we have several systems here on the farm that we put into place. I don’t know if you wanna walk over here we can look at something.
JM: We absolutely would love to keeping in theme with the Dream Green Series. And you mentioned about a weekend event here, is that an ongoing thing? And who is that connected with Francis?
FT: It’s actually a onetime event. It’s with the Practical Farmers of Iowa.
JM: Ok, great. Obviously you do a lot of connecting with different groups and running for the Agricultural Secretary position this past time, making some headlines and news doing that. What was that experience like?
FT: Well, it was very interesting. As you said, I ran for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture last year and some of the issues I raised were renewable energy, how we can make Iowa farms energy self-sufficient because we are a long ways from that. Another one was how we raise our animals so we can do it in a more ecologically sound way, and for that matter, our crop production. And then a third area I talked about was how we can grow more of the food we eat here in Iowa right here in Iowa and keep the wealth that we create here in Iowa. Now we import about 85-90% of the food we eat in Iowa from out of state, which is a bit ironic.
JM: Crazy. Well, we’ve learned about 60% of the corn production goes to ethanol as well. Of course the subsidies have helped Iowa farmers push prices up and it looks like with the current economic, of a sort of bleaker economic landscape looking forward, that for the first some of those subsidies may actually be on the chopping block which would maybe change things around. But what’s your take on some of that?
FT: Well, I think we can make a lot smarter investment in truly renewable energy than the ethanol. It really isn’t actually renewable, frankly, or sustainable. For every gallon of ethanol produced from corn we lose two gallons to soil erosion, so it’s not sustainable. And it takes a lot of fossil fuels to grow the corn and to produce the ethanol, so it’s not really truly renewable. It’s been costing us almost $6 billion a year to subsidize the ethanol industry. And I don’t want to see it collapse, but I think it’s getting because we have so much invested in it, but it’s getting pretty self-sufficient. Obviously we’ve over built it we gotta stop over building it. But now look at that $6 billion a year and what could we do with that? A quick calculation of $5 per watt for solar energy and I did a little calculation in my head a minute ago and I came up with about two gigawatts of solar power that we could install for $6 billion a year and that would be solar power that would last twenty, thirty, forty years and we produce that energy, whereas when we put this money into ethanol we’re producing something that goes out your exhaust pipe very quickly and it’s not sustainably produced. So it’s really been a poor investment of our resources. If we could put that money, as I said, into solar we could produce enough solar in a year to power all the homes in Iowa basically. And that would be a truly good investment, long-term investment.
JM: Well said. We’ve learned that 20% of the electricity in the state of Iowa is coming from wind now, which is a pretty amazing achievement, up there with some of the best in this regard. Of course some of the issues with solar and wind is how to store that energy, and some different groups working on that. But you have, I see, something right here we’ve walked up to, let’s look at some renewable. Where are we at here?
FT: Yeah, up on the wall here of the processing plant on the roof. We have four panels, four by ten each, and for solar hot water. The sun heats these panels and in each panel exchanges the heat in tanks in the processing plant and so it creates hot water for our processing of milk and for our milking facilities.
JM: Great, that’s another thing we learned about Germany for instance, much less sunlight than Iowa, they’ve embraced solar in a big way. Made a lot of headway, it becomes more cost effective when there’s more production of it but for heating of water and so forth. So this, how long has this system been in place?
FT: It’s been in place about a year and it seems to be working pretty well. Yesterday I glanced at the control, at the little computer control, telling us what the temperatures are and it was producing 140 degree water and today it’s a little cloudier, but that’s not too bad actually.
JM: Not too bad at all.
ST: Are there any sort of other energy saving devices.
FT: On the house that we built here, we have a pond just below the house within twenty feet and in that pond we have loops of water pipes that’s geo-thermal heat exchanger, so for heating and cooling the house basically, are taking heat out of the water and putting heat in the water when we cool the house.
JM: Well, fantastic. So that’s just a geothermal system, is that built under the house? What do you mean with the pond?
FT: In the basement instead of a furnace we have a heat-exchanger and it has forced air, but instead of burning fuel it has a compressor that takes the heat out of the pond water basically. I guess we have anti-freeze circulating in pipes that go into loops of pipes that are lying in the pond and then that antifreeze circulates through the heat-exchanger and then it exchanges heat with a compressor so it can take heat out of the pond water basically.
JM: Wow, that’s very cool.
FT: One other thing you can’t see because it’s not here is that I have been approved for a grant to put in a wind turbine on the farm, and so we’re putting together plans to put up a thirty kilowatt wind turbine here and so that’s going to be good. And I’ve done, the Practical Farmers of Iowa has done an energy audit of the farm, looked at our energy use for electricity, for diesel fuel, for gasoline and for propane, and so now we’re going to see how we can reduce these by these energy saving systems. For example, the solar hot water heater system is saving us propane. And the wind turbine that we’re looking at to put up, it should offset all our electricity use as far as kilowatts. Now, the company we’re on, we’re on Access Energy, they do not have that metering. So, that means that when that wind blows a lot we sell it back very cheap and when the wind stops blowing we buy it back at the higher rate. But, it still looks like it’s going to work out for us.
JM: Well and what is this grant? How did that happen? For other people that may be interested, what are the mechanics of that Francis?
FT: It’s a USDA grant, it’s called a reprogram which stands for something or other, rural, I don’t even know what it stands for.
JM: Rural Economics something.
FT: Yeah I think so, I think that sounds right. The grant will pay for, if you get approved, for 25% of the cost. And now that still with this stimulus package, there’s still a 30% rebate on renewable energy systems. So that will also help, and all that together will make it more competitive to buy the wind turbine. Now if we were on that metering system, we could probably do it without as much assistance. And people will wonder well you know subsidies for wind it should be able to pay for itself but you know, all energy sources are pretty much subsidized and I think we need to look at what are our smart investments. If we’re going to invest in something, like wind and solar that will produce for decades or if we’re going to invest in something like corn ethanol that is going to not only degrade the soil, but is going to not have any long term contribution to our energy self-sufficiency. It’s good that we have 20% of our electricity in Iowa comes from wind, but if you look at the economics of it they’re mostly owned by large corporations that are out of state. And so, really, the wealth created is leaving the state of Iowa. And what I would like to see is a lot of midsized wind turbines on farms and on land all over Iowa that would use the energy created locally because now with the big wind farms we have to create big transmission lines to get that anywhere. But if you had it and distributed throughout the state then we would use for example on our farm, our immediate neighborhood and that would be throughout the state so that you wouldn’t need to build the big transmission lines and the wealth created would stay in the community.
JM: So here we go, we jump into a, I don’t think it’s quite a tractor, it looks more like a golf cart to me but…
FT: It’s an ATV with a box on the back, a little oversized ATV, all-terrain vehicle.
JM: Oh nice. This I recognize this as something that you drive on a golf cart and pick up golf balls. So we’re driving past the house here and down a gravel road, we’ll be going past the pond. Yup, more tractors as Stuart points out, these look like some vintage models as well.
ST: Seven different tractors I’ve spotted so far. If you like tractors, this is the place to come here, Francis Thicke’s farm.
JM: Let’s ask about that Francis. You do have people come fairly regularly and to visit and look at the place. Do you have any kind of regular hours or is there a website as well for Radiance Dairy?
FT: Well, there is a website. It’s not really extensive. But we don’t really have regular times for tours because nobody seems to be able to make it on a regular time. I mean, everybody calls once to come right now and they can’t come tomorrow. So, that’s kinda the way it goes.
JM: Sounds like good Americans. But at any rate, so obviously you can get in touch. There is a website, just Google Radiance Dairy Farm and that’s a way to check in. But right now we’re heading out, we almost lost Stuart. Now Stuart has been all over the world in jungles, he’s been up the Amazon. Right now he’s doing some crazy picture taking as we head out across the prairies of Iowa. What kind of birds are these flying away?
FT: Those are swallows of some kind.
JM: We see a bunch of swallows that are enjoying the aftermath of the dairy process here. We’re driving through what we used to call, as children, cow pies. I guess that’s part of the richness that brings back to the soil. Natural fertilizer.
FT: Right, and there are also flocks of cowbirds, and there are wild turkey that follow cows around too. So, they help us I think to keep the pests under control because they scratch through the cow manure and they eat the larvae of the flies that are trying to hatch.
ST: James, they’re watching us coming across. I think they’ve got their eyes on you actually. You’re actually going to blend into the cows with your khaki shorts and shirt on.
JM: Well yes, here we are we’re coming up they’re all looking saying ‘hey, what’s up dad? Is this some special treat? What beautiful faces.’ And we see the birds that are there take care of action. And I know this, we see a few cuds that are in action. Hey gang! So does this represent the whole herd?
FT: These are the milking cows. There are about nearly eighty here and then we have two other groups. We have a group of cows that are in the dry phase and that’s because every year each cow will have a calf about once a year at the same time. And each cow’s on a different schedule, but two months before they have their calf they have a two month vacation period from milking, we stop milking them, they dry off and then they have their calf and begin milking again.
JM: Let’s ask this, how many times a day with milking and give us just a little break down with that.
FT: We milk the cows twice a day. So, they come into the barn, they come home from the pastures twice a day for milking.
JM: They look like a healthy team here, four-score. So, a wide range of ages, right? And this is represented.
FT: Yes. A dairy cow normally has their first calf at the age of two and then they begin milking and then they’re really considered a mature cow.
JM: And for how many years do they contribute, in terms of the milk?
TF: Well, the average nation-wide is about two and a half years, but grazing cows last longer because they’re in their natural environment eating their natural diet. They tend to live longer. Like I mentioned, this cow here is eleven years old and there are a couple eleven year olds in here now.
JM: Beautiful. They seem like they kinda like you, Mr. Thicke.
FT: Well, they’re very friendly. If you walk up they’ll come up and say hello.
JM: A lot of great faces here I wish you could see it. Radio, can’t quite. Stuart’s taking some pictures now so that’ll be up on the website. You can always go there, greeniowa.org. But this is just a, boy, just a beautiful herd. And getting them, back how does that work?
FT: We just basically run down here in one of our ATVs and open the gate and give a whistle and they follow us home.
JM: And here we are we’ve walked up to the very spot where the milking is done. Quiet as it stands right now, but give us a little quick rundown on this, if you will Francis.
FT: So, this is where we milk the cows and they come in the back and you can see that’s a pit in the middle where we stand to milk the cows so we’re at a lower elevation so we can stand there comfortable height and put the milking machines on the cow’s udder. And the cows come in on each side of the pit, eight cows on each side and so we prep the cows, clean the udders and make sure they’re clean and put the units on eight cows at a time and then when they’re finished we swing the milkers over and put them on the other eight on the other side, and the first eight cows will come out and eight more will come in. So, that’s how we milk, it’s pretty fast and efficient, works pretty well, takes about three hours probably to do everything twice a day.
JM: Well, now we’re going into another room here, maybe we can have final thoughts. Stuart, do you wanna share and we’ll wrap things up here with Francis Thicke at Radiance Dairy Farm we’ve been visiting today, and a beautiful day that’s for sure.
ST: I just want to say well thank goodness for Radiance Dairy Farm, because I’m sure yourself, like me, are one of the customers and enjoy the products. It’s a wonderful thing how good things taste better and they’re healthier for you. As well as being sustainable and better energy conservation. And when you come to the farm as well you can feel the quality of life, so you can feel it at all levels. And so, what can you pit against that, really, as a counter argument? I don’t see any, really, other than the fact that this is a really important model because as we were talking about earlier as Fred Kirschenmann said, he said he started out with this thinking, this mission was to change the world and then he realized what his mission was, is to create the models that are effective and that work so that when people want to change they have a model that they can change into. And I think Radiance Dairy Farm is one of those models that people in the future they will look back to and say, ‘yeah, Radiance Dairy Farm was way out there in front.’ And thank goodness for that because we really needed it when we really needed a change in models. So, we just want to say for the Dream Green Series, all kudos and recognition of that achievement really.
FT: Well, just taking off of something Stuart said, is that we need to have models in place. And sometimes people say that things aren’t possible, and there’s an old saying that the people that say things aren’t possible need to get out of the way of the people that are already doing it.
JM: Well said. Part of what we were hoping to travel around the state and find, people that are innovating and making things happen. We’ve been to Dubuque, we’ve been to Davenport, we’ve been to Des Moines and a number of areas seeing people doing some really great remarkable things. So, keep up the great work and I think I’m gonna go have either a milkshake, or how’s the cottage cheese coming?
FT: We’re not making cottage cheese at this point. I guess we talked about that once before, didn’t we.
JM: I think so. I’m a big cottage cheese man. Thank you so much, Francis. This is Stuart Tanner and James Moore with the Dream Green Series right here from Radiance Dairy Farm. Keep it tuned right here. Remember, you can follow the journey of discovery at greeniowa.org. We’re broadcasting on solar-powered KRUU-FM.
Voiceover: Produced by Stuart Tanner and James Moore at solar-powered KRUU 100.1 FM, Fairfield, Iowa, online at kruufm.com. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence, and nearly seventy individuals, companies and organizations. For a list of sponsors, visit our website at greeniowa.org. Archives available for download under creative commons license. Music from Zila.