Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ethanol: Dark Tower Or Shining Beacon?

A man is crossing a big prairie and nothing happens—and he goes on and on—and it’s all lonesome and empty and nobody home.

Thus Carl Sandburg explains Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” to an eleven year old.

Sandburg’s “Manitoba Childe Roland” expands Browning’s poem to a vast prairie in Manitoba and Minnesota. And there is a lot of prairie. Not only in Minnesota, but in Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas. And there are towers too. Grain silos that dot the landscape like skyscrapers standing guard on the wealth of the land.

But wealth is not Browning’s concern. The tower on his prairie is ill defined and when his hero comes to it there is foreboding. But in Sandburg’s poem, Sandburg sees a triumph over adversity, and he writes of a man sledding across a frozen winter prairie with his dogs to victory.

But out on the plains many wonder. Not about winter victory, but about the towers that now belch steam, and turn grain into ethanol fuel. For many, the ethanol plants are not a promise, but a bane to a hungry world waiting for food.

Yes, ethanol plants are everywhere. They are on the plains of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Across the river from Sioux City there is a great grain tower lit to the night sky like a beacon, but this one feeds us. The new towers do not, and according to the Nebraska Ethanol Board there are currently 12 ethanol production plants in Nebraska, producing more than 640 million gallons of ethanol each year. Making this much fuel each plants uses 300 million bushels of grain a year!

And they are in Iowa too. In Iowa there are more than 21 production plants, and one coming soon to a neighborhood in Siouxland is a 50-million gallon plant proposed by Plymouth Energy LLC. The new zoning was approved by the Plymouth County Zoning Board recently.

Not to be left behind Minnesota has 16 plants (one soon be coming to Heron Lake), and South Dakota has 7. With many more on the drawing board across the plains.

Most plants in the Midwest are owned by grain producers, and getting a good price for a bushel of corn is just good business for the local farmers, many of whom build and operate the plants.

“The farmer has to make a buck,” one person in the Midwest said, who asked not to be identified in this article. The children of this once "old style" farm family are now heavily invested in a new ethanol plant, and many farmers are happy with the new prices as well.

One farmer's wife when asked about ethanol at a small Midwestern mall said ethanol had given them a better price for their corn. She said they were happy with this, even though they also raised hogs.

Even so, lines are being drawn. Many people simply don’t want to be identified with food as fuel, while others see a fine future for all. The individual whose family is invested in a future ethanol plant believed farmers needed to make money, but was seriously concerned about a starving world.

But before those in opposition to food for fuel start protesting outside ethanol plants, while farmers counter protest on the other side, there is a silver lining. Out of every 300 million bushels of grain used to make ethanol, 100 million bushels is still edible.

In Laurel Nebraska, for example, where an ethanol plant is scheduled to open when finished being built, the beacon of the prairie will produce 100 million gallons of ethanol a year. According to the town’s website the plant will bring America one step closer to energy independence and is an economic development step forward for the City of Laurel, Cedar and surrounding counties.

Job and economic development is a high priory for Laurel, as it is for most rural areas. But also mentioned on the site is the 320,000 tons of dried distiller grains the plant will produce, which essentially is food.

Shirley Petche, once listed as the general manager of ASAlliances Biofuel, and now listed as the Director of the Boone County Development Agency, has said of the new ethanol plant being built near Albion, NE, that area farmers are already using distiller grain. The high quality mash left after distilling ethanol is used to feed livestock.

“We have quite a lot of feedlots in the area,” Petche said in a phone
interview “—producers that are use to using it. Right now they go to Central City or Columbus.”

Petche said the Albion plant, when up and running, will be capable of drying the distiller grain like the plant in Laurel.

The fuel for ethanol plants comes from the starch in a kernel of grain, and according to the Ethanol Producers And Consumers web page (EPAC), other nutrients, such as protein, fiber, germ, vitamins and minerals remain in the mash left over from the process. In fact, there is already talk of this high quality food, similar to whey protein, being sent to countries in need of food.

According to Petche, the ethanol plant in Albion won’t be involved in making food, but they will be drying the distiller grain. And dried distiller grain, or “ddg,” is already consider a human food source.

Bob Kommer, the President of Laurel Ethanol, sees ddg mostly as animal feed, but in a phone interview from his office in Seattle, Kommer said it could be sampled.

“It’s good,” he said.

According to Kommer, corn ddg looks and tastes a lot like golden Grape Nut Flakes. But despite his reservations about it being used for human food, laboratory testing has already been done on distiller grain in plants maintaining food quality standards, and according to the EPAC, the distillers grain from wheat recorded a protein content of 42 percent, and is being championed as superior to raw grain, which must be cooked as gruel to feed hungry people.

“A solution,” the EPAC said, “is to process grain to ethanol and distillers grains and ship the processed dg to other countries where it could be incorporated into traditional native foods, thereby enhancing their diet.”

Or perhaps a food bar. Another idea on the site.

It is true, according Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, that if we were to covert the country’s entire grain harvest into ethanol to run our cars, it would only supply only 16 percent of the country’s total fuel needs.

Mr. Brown made this statement on National Public Radio, and advocates taking a closer look at the impact of the many facilities coming into production across the country.

But for many, ethanol production is the right answer—not only for individual farmers, but farming communities and the world.

“In the short term,” Kommer said, “there is going to be disruption, like there is with tortillas (the high cost of corn) in Mexico. But in the long run it is going to be healthy for the world because third world farmers will be able to compete.”

Kommer believed large agricultural processors, such as ADM, Cargill and others keep the price of grain low by holding huge surpluses. Ethanol levels the field, according to Kommer, and will bring a fair market price to American farmers, and others, who will now be able to compete in world markets.

But is this talk just pie in the sky—simply profiteers spinning a web in the name of anonymous investors? Only time will tell, as many in the world watch and wait to see what food into to fuel truly means.

Perhaps Shirley Petche said it best. While acknowledging there is some concern about the rising price of corn in her community, she sees the production of ethanol simply as a means to an end. And in end it is a bright future:

“We are a farm community,” she said. “It is a good use of corn.”

Recipes From


Here is a coffee bar recipe with raisins that is good.

3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup ddg
5/8 tsp baking soda
5/8 tsp bake powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tblsp instant coffee powder
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped nuts

Heat over to 350grease and flour a 15 x 10 pan. combine dry ingredients. cream butter and sugar together, add eggs and vanilla. dissolve instant coffee in water, add to creamed mixture alternately with dry ingredients. Fold in raisins and nuts. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. frost while still slightly warm,Frosting, mix together 1 1/2 tsp coffee powder, 1 1/2 Tblsp milk, and 1 cup powdered sugar, cool and cut into bars.


Dissolve: 2 tablespoons yeast and 2 tablespoons sugar in 1 cup hot water. Mix together:
1/2 cup shortening
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups hot water
1/2 cup sugar
3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups DDG

When yeast is dissolved and has started to work, add to above mixture. Stir in flour and knead. Approximately 6 1/2 cups white flour. Flour may vary. Dough should be soft but not sticky. Let raise until double, punch down and let raise again. Make into 6 small loaves and let raise until double. Bake 350 degree oven about 25-30 minutes.This recipe can be used to make raisin bread or buns.

A special thanks to Dmitry Efimenko for the dark tower, Peter Baker for the ethanol plant at night and the Wayne Stater in Wayne, Nebraska. Without the support of the Wayne Stater, an award winning college newspaper, this article could not have been posted

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Palm Tree In Sioux City

The Midwest is not known for its palm trees, but all around the area Palm Sunday is celebrated. At this posting it is the Sunday before Easter, which commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when palm fronds were strewn before him as a sign of respect.

In accordance with that triumphant day it is remembered “Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!” the people of Jerusalem shouted, and Jesus entered the city on a donkey in accordance with the scripture.

And we in the Heartland celebrate.

Yes, palm fronds, or palm trees, hold promise of a better time—and better weather. Perhaps that is why there is a shimmering gold palm tree located on the Westside of Sioux City. On dark nights it shines and sparkles, and it is hard to miss—even as it stands before a business. For the indoctrinated, it is easy to see why the owner put it there.

It is not within the scope of this article to explore the many metaphorical ramifications of palm trees. For those who have lived with them it is simply a matter of longing.

Leo Thiner, a native to the plains near Worthington, MN shares the same feeling as many who have returned from gentler climes.

“Where are the palm trees,” he asks.

Indeed. Where are the palm trees?

For many, palm trees symbolize not only Christ, but California. Or perhaps Hawaii. And like the freezing cold of this place this winter, the trees are in the news.

In southern California, for example, palm trees are in trouble, according to the MSNBC website, and many are dying.

“The trees are dying of old age and a fungal disease, disappearing one by one from parks and streets,” MSNBC reports.

Of course, not all palm trees are infected, and there is no danger of palm tress vanishing altogether, according to the article. But some parts of the city will look noticeably different in the years ahead.

Many of the palm trees in southern California are stately, very tall, and are often like standing next to a telephone pole. This reporter remembers those trees, and they are nothing like the one in Sioux City, or even many palm trees in northern California.

The palm trees are real in northern California, of course, but they are much closer to the ground like the artificial one on the Westside of Sioux City. A walker can find bush-sized palms in northern California, such as in the valley town of Chico, and other places less well known. Living with them can actually feel Biblical, like being transported to a wondrous time, not to mention into a better clime.

For palm tree lovers everywhere this blog will be posting that shimmering, golden palm (if the Observer’s camera can recorded it) as soon as work and weather permit. It is a palm tree on the prairie, out in a place called Perry Creek in Sioux City, Iowa.

Editor's note: The Observer's camera captured this on a beautiful, cold winter sunset almost a year after this posting. We have added it for this update.