(Posted Wed. Feb 22nd, 2012)
Feb. 22: The ethanol story, fully told, would showcase every aspect of NCGA – the dedication of thousands of grower members, the strategic thinking, state level initiatives, policy work, research, infrastructure, sustainability, even aspects of NCGA’s biotechnology effort – and it would take a whole book.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, an ethanol supporter since the 1970s, remembers some of the earliest corn grower efforts to promote ethanol: “They would come with a gravity box with corn and a sign about ethanol, urging support.
“Without the corn growers, we would not have an ethanol policy. Other farm organizations have been generally supportive of ethanol as well, but the corn growers have played the leading role.
“Not only have they made a difference from the standpoint of policy, but also they have been very involved in making sure the ethanol tax credits were extended.”
Yet even in recent years, progress never came easily.
“One of the big issues that marked my term as NCGA president was the first energy bill with the Renewable Fuels Standard,” says Dee Vaughan from Texas. “We didn’t put anything over the finish line, but we made a lot of trips to Washington and did a lot of down-in-the-trenches work on that bill.
“It was a very slow process and probably the top issue we worked on.”
“George Bush was president,” remembers Fred Yoder, “and he got Congress to pass the drug prescription program as part of Medicare. The Democrats didn’t want to give him another ‘win’ so we were two votes shy of passing the energy bill, but the groundwork was laid down and we got it passed two years later.”
“The second energy bill was monumental,” recalls Ken McCauley. “It just exploded our demand for corn and our prices.
“The day it was going through the House of Representatives was the day I went to the White House Christmas party. I was talking with President Bush and thanking him for helping ethanol, and he said, ‘I’ll do more if you get Pelosi to come around.’
“To have a real conversation with the President of the United States and to have him on our side was just amazing.”
Over the years, NCGA’s ethanol success has paid off in countless ways, from cleaner fuels and less dependence on limited oil imports to grower ownership of value-added corn processing.
Its growing use has been the single biggest factor helping corn demand keep pace with growing production. Every time a U.S. grower sells corn into the marketplace, his price is better because of ethanol-related demand.
Growers who can sell to a nearby ethanol plant typically enjoy an even better price boost, and the dream of the 1970s – growers profiting from adding value to their crop – is becoming “old hat” for the thousands of grower-investors in today’s 200 corn-based ethanol plants.
Then there’s the broader economic benefit in rural communities. One study in 2010 estimated the U.S. ethanol industry supported nearly 400,000 jobs in all sectors of the economy and added more than $53 billion to the nation's gross domestic product.
“There was nothing that really matched what ethanol did for us,” concludes Gene Fynboh, a Minnesota grower.
“Once we got the original RFS, that started a revolution for us from a supply-driven and government-driven corn economy to the demand-driven economy we have today,” says Yoder.
Now, growers are in a position to celebrate the successes that have come from almost 50 years of sustained efforts for ethanol, but the effort isn’t over.
“Two years ago, Darrin Ihnen, Dave Nelson, Rick Tolman and I went to Brazil and toured one of their new sugar plants,” says Ron Litterer. “They were awash in ethanol, and here, two years later, they’ve converted ethanol plants back to sugar and are importing ethanol from us.
“I came back knowing we need to get the blend wall issue sorted out.”
Ethanol continued to be a top priority for South Dakota’s Ihnen when he served as president from 2009 to 2010:
“One of the highlights of my time was working to get the ethanol groups to talk to each other – the Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy. It seems like every day I was on the phone to them. It was one of the big milestones of my year,” he says.
As ethanol’s role in the nation’s fuel supply has expanded, NCGA leaders have expanded efforts to promote ethanol (including the E15 blend) to a national audience. That has led to a major new outreach effort – the NASCAR American Ethanol partnership.
“NASCAR is turning out to be one of the biggest and most exciting programs to showcase ethanol and reach people,” says Bart Schott, NCGA’s 2010-2011 president.
“They have tens of millions of race fans, so it’s a great way to promote ethanol-blended fuel to the consumer – it’s been a big home run for ethanol and for corn growers, with a lot of press coverage and exposure.
“Each car has it printed over the fuel port, where it says ‘American Ethanol.’ With every race, we get exposure for the E15 blend.
“As they go from Daytona to Richmond to Kansas City, it’s as if every weekend they put on a Superbowl with 100,000 to 150,000 fans at the races,” he says.
Will NCGA continue to succeed on the ethanol front? The answer, as always, will depend on grower involvement, grower commitment.
“Nothing we’ve done is just one person,” says Yoder. “It’s always a team that makes progress.”