Research, Education, Links and Opinion

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dark Tower or Silver Lining?
Ethanol and the Midwest

In a poem of some fame, a man travels across an expanse, but nothing much happens (reflective doom perhaps). He goes on and on until he comes to a dark tower, which by most interpretations is not good.

Interestingly, Carl Sandburg wrote about this poem, and about reading it to a child. In his poem, Sandburg explored Browning’s poem " Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"  anew.

Sandburg’s "Manitoba Childe Roland" expands Browning’s poem to a vast prairie in Manitoba and Minnesota. But Browning’s tower on his "prairie" is ill defined, and stands dark and alone in some unknown land. When his hero comes to it there is foreboding. The same kind of place farming seems to be going today in America as well.

There are towers here too, and a lot of open land. But the towers are called grain silos and ethanol plants, not castles. And they dot the landscape as if standing guard on the wealth of the land.

In Sandburg's tale he sees triumph over adversity in the journey, and he writes of a man sledding across a frozen winter prairie to victory. It is a victory in life, and a struggle against long odds.

But our victory has nothing to do with overcoming winter. And it seems to have nothing to do with growing food either, or at least that's the concern: the towers are belching steam, and turn grain into ethanol fuel. For many it is not Sandburg's triumph over the struggle, but Browning's bane in the expanse, especially in a hungry world waiting for food.



Today, the towers are everywhere. They are on the plains of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Across the river from Sioux City there is a tall grain tower to the west, a beacon in the night sky. But it feeds us. Many of the new towers do not, and further west to Nebraska, the Nebraska Ethanol Board tells us there are currently (as of 2007) 12 ethanol production plants producing more than 640 million gallons of ethanol each year. To make this much fuel each plant uses 300 million bushels of grain a year.

And they are in Iowa too. In Iowa there are 21 production plants, and more are coming. A 50-million gallon plant proposed by Plymouth Energy LLC, for example, was being considered when this story was first written in 2007. The new zoning was approved by the Plymouth County Zoning Board, and the plant was built. It is operational today, and you can visit their website at Plymouth Energy LLC.

The plants are everywhere. Not to be left behind Minnesota has 16, and South Dakota has 7. With many more on the drawing board across the great plains.

Most plants in the Midwest are owned by grain producers, and getting a good price for a bushel of corn is good for business, plain and simple. In fact, many farmers and their families build and operate the plants themselves.

“The farmer has to make a buck,” the son of a Minnesota farmer said. He asked not to be identified by his last name, but his father worked hard, and Leo (and his brothers and sisters) is heavily invested in a new ethanol plant in Heron Lake. Like many from the farming community, he is happy with the new price of corn.

In Worthington, Minnesota, a short distance from the town, a farmer's wife, when asked about ethanol production at a shopping mall, said it had given them a better price for their corn. They were happy, even though they also raised hogs and the increased price for corm had raised production costs.

But all do not agree. Many people simply do not want to be identified with food for fuel, and the production of ethanol from corn is a real concern for many who worry about a starving world.

But there is a silver lining. Out of every 300 million bushels of grain used to make ethanol, 100 million bushels is still edible. Some producers, such as those in Laurel, Nebraska, for example, have plans to make plastic with their left over distiller grain ( please see the Sioux City Journal, September, 2010).  But there is still hope.

Naturally, jobs and economic development are a high priory for Laurel, as it is for most rural areas. When this article was first written, for example, the plant was expected to produce 320,000 tons of dried distiller grain (ddg), and feeding livestock with the grain was still on the table.

Shirley Petche, listed as the general manager of ASAlliances Biofuel, who later became the Director of the Boone County Development Agency, said area farmers were already using distiller grain in 2007 (the high quality mash left after distilling corn was being used from other ethanol plants to feed local livestock).

“We have quite a lot of feedlots in the area,” Petche said in a phone interview in 2007, “and producers are use to using it. Right now they go to Central City or Columbus.”

The fuel for ethanol plants comes from the starch in a kernel of grain, and according to the Ethanol Producers And Consumers web page (being edited at this update), contains 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.

Sowmya Arra worked on the idea at South Dakota State University, and many studies have confirmed its potential as a high-protein flour when processed properly (read abstract here).

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

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 distiller grain from wheat has actually recorded a protein content of 42 percent. Simply put, it is being championed as superior to raw grain, which must be cooked as gruel to feed hungry people.

“A solution,” the EPAC said on its website when active, “is to process grain to ethanol and distiller grain and then ship the processed ddg to other countries where it could be incorporated into traditional native foods, thereby enhancing their diet.”

It can even be made into a food bar, according to the site.

Ethanol production cannot solve the nation’s energy problems alone, or world hunger, but there is hope.

“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 believes 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.

Of course, the worry is that such a comment is little more than a profiteers public relations spin in the name of anonymous investors. But distiller grain is still food, and a potential bonanza in a starving world.

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 the end there is a bright future:

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

Hopefully, it will be.





The Silver Lining: The recipes seen below from EPAC's original website are high protein (a pdf from South Dakota State University has a cookie recipe, and explains the flour's benefits well).


COFFEE RAISIN BAR

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.

BREAD

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.

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