By Matt Reese
“Mark Thomas raises corn and milks cows in Stark County.
In that respect, the Louisville-area farmer is no different from the hundreds of other farmers in the Buckeye state.
But Mark Thomas is uniquely different from any farmer in Ohio.”
These were the first lines of the first cover story of the first issue of Ohio’s Country Journal 20 years ago in September of 1992. That initial issue featured Thomas, his love of life on the farm and his tireless promotion of ethanol through his success on the race track behind the wheel of an ethanol-powered hot rod. By 1992, Thomas had won three International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) world championships and he had been successful at using his success to talk about his favorite fuel — corn ethanol.
Thomas grew up learning to love the farm and race cars. When he was in the sixth grade he had to write an essay about what he considered to be a perfect day.
“My ‘perfect day’ was to get up and milk cows, do the barn chores and then head off to race a car somewhere,” Thomas said in the 1992 article.
By that definition, Thomas had many perfect days. He was racing a built-from-scratch car by 1986 and staying busy on the farm. He would milk cows and do farm work during the day, then work on cars or go to races late into the night, only to get up at 5 a.m. to milk cows and race cars all over again. At the peak of his racing career, he was competing in around 15 races a year, each for a minimum of three days, and he also took his car to numerous events to promote ethanol — a rigorous schedule for a dairy farmer with a young family.
“But I wanted to be competitive, so I knew that I had to make the jump up. With the support of the Ohio Corn Marketing Program, I was able to move up and become competitive. I don’t think I’d be the world champion if it wasn’t for that support,” Thomas said in 1992. “And it’s been a great marriage. I raise corn and I race a car that uses a product made from corn. How much better could it get?”
A recent visit with Thomas revealed that things did get better. After the 1992 article, Thomas went on to be a part of the most successful team in IHRA history with a total of seven national championships before he retired in 2008 and traded his race car for a farm pickup truck and exchanged his racing gear for a pair of shorts, a sleeveless “Mark Thomas” t-shirt and boots that serve as his work clothes most summer days on the farm.
“I had been racing for so long and I was promoting something I really believed in. I have always been a huge proponent of ethanol. The hardest part of me retiring from racing was the competition, the limelight and being a farmer in the racing world, which made me an odd commodity. But, I quit for my family. Looking back, I was very blessed to do what I did,” Thomas said. “Back then we farmed and we raced and we were just starting a family. And I don’t think we knew what we were in for when we were starting the ethanol movement.”
The last two decades have been one of the most successful agricultural efforts in history with the rise of ethanol. In 1992, ethanol was barely on the radar of most drivers, and now the fuel is a gas station staple around the country. Thomas and his streak of wins, his quick wit, camera appeal, and his celebrity status played no small role in the progress of ethanol. The cameras and commentators loved the dairy farming race car driver from Northeast Ohio.
It was a perfect match for the fledgling Ohio Corn Marketing Program to sponsor Thomas and his promotion of the fuel he was so passionate about.
“I am so proud of what we accomplished with the support of the Corn Marketing Program and what we have been able to do. We didn’t know where it was going to go when it started,” he said. “The changes in ethanol were pretty exciting to me and it makes you pretty proud as a farmer to feed and help fuel the nation. And, the success of ethanol has allowed grain farmers to be able to stand on their own. This has been a lot of fun and, now you just assume that every gallon of gas you buy has ethanol in it. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. We actually made it happen. It is amazing that a group of farmers could work to accomplish all of that. You don’t always see that kind of dedication to work for what you believe in.”
The Thomas family has expanded in the last 20 years as well. Now Mark and his wife, Chris, have three children — Val, 22, Andrea, 19, and Nick 16. Instead of working on his car and travelling the country to race, Thomas spends his time working around the farm, going to tractor pulls with his kids, attending his son’s cross country meets, and, he certainly does not mind assisting his son as he builds a race car in the garage.
Another monumental change in the last 20 years has been the widening gap between consumers and agriculture. The lack of basic understanding of agriculture is showing up more regularly in every aspect of society, and the growing number of regulatory challenges at the state and federal levels reflects that.
“Twenty years ago, a lot more people knew where their food came from. Who ever thought we would have to defend ourselves about why we do what we do?” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter if it is how you handle a downed cow, spray weeds or spread fertilizer, you can’t afford to make one mistake without everyone knowing about it. What do we face as a society when, even though we are producing the safest food supply ever, we constantly have to defend what we are doing?”
While the obstacles have changed, the resolve of those in agriculture has not. Thomas continues to milk cows and produce crops despite the mounting challenges around him. Like so many farmers, he focuses the bulk of his time and effort on animal care, environmental stewardship and his family. When it comes to these pillars of farm life, things have changed little in the last 20 years.
“There are so many challenges ahead, but when you look back you can see how far we have come. Personally, in the last 20 years I have had two more children and I watched my family grow. My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and I still give her all the credit,” Thomas said. “We are producing more, safer food than we ever have and we are doing it with less. There have been some great changes in the last 20 years, it is just that now they are putting a picture of an old guy on my driver’s license.”