September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Iowa dairy couple chosen for organic award

On-farm processing helps Thickes add value to Jersey farm

LA CROSSE. Wis. - A dairy couple from Iowa has been chosen as the 2012 MOSES Organic Farmers of the year. Francis and Susan Thicke, Fairfield, Iowa, accepted the award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) during the organization's annual conference in La Crosse, Wis.
The Thickes milk 90 Jerseys and market all the milk from their Radiance Dairy within four miles of their farm. It's more or less the "community dairy" for the city of 10,000, which includes a college.
"One of the unique things about what we're doing is that people will come up to us on the street and thank us. Some people say they can't drink other milk," Francis Thicke said. "Maybe it's because we don't homogenize our milk."
Four full-time and part-time employees work on the farm and in the processing plant. Susan helps milk, makes cheese, and keeps the books, while Francis takes care of such day-to-day matters as animal care and cropping.
There's no doubt that value-added products are behind the farm's profitability. Besides milk and several types of cheese, the dairy makes yogurt and cheese that's sold in two grocery stores, along with a soft-serve ice cream mix that's sold in area restaurants.
When the Thickes bought their farm in 1996, the value-added sector was not doing well, Thicke said.
"But we were just at the beginning of a curve of all the on-farm processing and value added," he said. "It took me several years to realize the difference. In the past, all the on-farm processors were competing in the commodity market. As industrial agriculture got bigger and bigger, they were competing with these big conglomerates.
"But now," he said, "value-added is a special product. It has a niche market; it has a special price."
Besides being organically produced, the Thickes' milk has at least three other things that help differentiate it. First, it's from cows that are pastured much of the time. Second, it's from Jerseys, making it higher in solids.
"So even our skim milk has more body and flavor," Thicke said. "People who drink our skim milk won't drink other skim milk."
The third selling point for the Thickes' dairy products is that they are locally produced, he said.
Thicke is somewhat of a local product himself, raised on a dairy farm near La Crescent, Minn. He studied music and philosophy in college, then came home and farmed nine years. From there, it was back to school, this time to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master's degree in soil science. Then he went to the University of Illinois and received his doctorate in agronomy.
After that, it was off to Washington, D.C. There he worked for the USDA as the national program leader for soil science.
He and Susan moved to southeast Iowa in 1992.
"We wanted to get out of the big city," Thicke said.
Four years later, they purchased a worn-out row crop farm and began nursing it back to good health. They relied on perennial grasses and plenty of manure.
The farm they bought was the only one in Iowa that was processing its own milk, Thicke said. Since then, Radiance Dairy has become a part of the Fairfield community on two levels. Not only does it provide organic dairy products for many of the residents, but many local people take pride in the Thicke farm, and come out to visit.
"We feel like it is a community dairy," Thicke said. "People come to see the cows, so it's kind of like they have their own inspection program."
Radiance Dairy is the focus of grade school, high school and university tours. The dairyman called his farm an "education center" of sorts.
"We're one of the tourist attractions in our little town," Thicke said. "Even our tourism bureau will bring Greyhound buses full of people for tours, just to see our farm."
Visitors can see how the Thickes use managed intensive grazing to not only pare milk production costs, but to protect the environment. The land around Fairfield is hilly and well suited to grazing. The Thickes extend the grazing season by stockpiling grass, and can usually feed their herd on pasture from April through December. Francis and Susan have 60 paddocks for their cows to rotate through.
The pastures are fertilized not only by manure, but by whey left over from making cheese. The Thickes are thinking about one day using some of the whey to make a protein drink.
Believers in energy efficiency, the Thickes use a pasture watering system that employs a submersible pump powered by electricity generated by solar panels. Water is pumped to a 4,000-gallon tank set on a high spot, and gravity moves water to the paddocks.
The Thickes' pastures hold more than dairy cattle. A flock of chickens in the paddocks helps control insects. In addition, the Thickes spray organically produced soybean oil and use a variety of insect traps.
Calves stay with their dams until weaning. True, the calves drink some milk that could be run through the processing facility, but the Thickes said the loss of that milk is more than made up for by the great start the calves get.
Conservation is an underlying theme throughout the Thicke farm. There are fenced stream crossings for the cattle. Windbreaks of shrubs and fruit trees provide wildlife habitat.
Thicke recently ran for the post of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, but was not elected. As part of his campaign, he published a book titled "A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century." The idea was to foster more discussion of issues.
Both Thickes serve on a number of boards, including the Sierra Club and a group that challenges the siting of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Francis is a member of the state technical committee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, too. He's a member of the Iowa Farmers Union and has testified before Congress.
Farming, in general, has damaged the environment, he acknowledged. However, he asserted, it does not have to be that way.
"I would argue that we can design and manage farms so they have the reverse effect," he said. "We will enhance our resources and improve our soil, water, and air quality, and improve wildlife habitat."
Asked what he likes about farming, Thicke answered, "Our farm is so diversified, and we have the energy things we're doing. Every year we try to improve something and make it more efficient."[[In-content Ad]]


You must login to comment.

Top Stories

Today's Edition



27 28 29 30 31 1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

To Submit an Event Sign in first

Today's Events

sep 27, 2023 @ 12:00pm
sep 27, 2023 @ 12:00pm