The Thrill of a Presidential Visit

President Obama's April 28 visit to the Poet Biorefining plant in Macon, Mo., wasn't just good news for one ethanol producer. Many believe the whole industry can glean hope from that event.
By Holly Jessen | June 10, 2010
Sen. Wes Shoemyer beamed from ear to ear the day President Barack Obama visited the Poet ethanol plant in Macon, Mo. Besides serving as a Missouri state legislator, Shoemyer is one of 311 farmer members, who, as a whole, own more than 81 percent of the ethanol plant in Macon. Each year, some of the corn he grows is delivered to the ethanol plant. "This is more exciting than when I get a check," he said, referring to dividend checks received periodically from his ethanol plant investment.

Shoemyer wasn't the only only person excited by the president's visit. Steve Burnett, general manager of the Macon plant, led Obama on a private tour of the plant before his speech in the grains building. He described the president as personable and told how he paused for a talk with six plant employees. During an unscheduled photo opportunity, Obama put his arm around Mary Barbieri, a longtime, hardworking employee. "I'd guess this is the highlight of her life," Burnett said.

But it wasn't just a boost for those associated with the Poet plant. Burnett also talked about what the president's visit means for the whole ethanol industry and farmers who provide corn for that industry. "It's really a great day for agriculture," he said.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa was also in attendance. He told EPM that the president has a keen interest in both current biofuels technologies and newer, emerging technologies. He confirmed that the visit to the corn-ethanol plant should be a positive indication of Obama's support for ethanol. "I thought it was a positive experience for both the president and for the industry," he said.

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, also in attendance, commented to EPM that unfortunately many people just don't understand that ethanol is a viable alternative for oil that is here today, providing 10 percent of America's fuel, and that it can replace more. The president's tour of a corn ethanol plant says that the most powerful person in the world is behind the ethanol industry, Buis said. "I think that his visit today will help get that message out there."

The President's Speech
After touring the ethanol plant, Obama arrived at the scrubbed and decorated grains building, where 133 invited guests, including Poet executives, board members, plant employees, media and others, had waited for about two hours to hear him speak. Half the plant's employees, including office staff, had worked with shovels and squeegees in the preceding days to prepare for the event, Burnett said. A hush descended on the crowd when the president entered the facility that lasted about 15 minutes while he toured the plant privately, until "Hail to the Chief" began playing right before he entered the room. Only the birds—plentiful, as in any grains building—broke the silence, chirping cheerfully and loudly throughout the president's talk.

Obama began his speech by congratulating the employees of the Macon plant on their 10-year anniversary. Missouri's first ethanol plant started producing in May, 2000, with a capacity of 15 MMgy. Today it produces 46 MMgy and employs 45 people. "That means one of you is over achieving," the president joked.

He also reminded those in attendance that this wasn't his first visit to an ethanol plant. In 2007, Illinois Sen. Obama was the keynote speaker at the grand opening of the Charles City, Iowa, ethanol plant now owned and operated by Valero Energy Corp."I believe in what you are doing right here to contribute not only to our clean energy future, but also to our rural economies," he said. "There shouldn't be any doubt that renewable homegrown fuels are a key part of our clean energy future—a future of new industries, new jobs in towns like Macon, and new independence."

Obama went on to reference biofuels multiple times during his brief remarks. The visit to Macon was part of the president's "White House to Main Street Tour" that kicked off in December 2009 as a way for Obama to get out of Washington and spend time with American families. As Obama explained, he's been visiting towns in middle America because they have a lot to teach, including common sense, and he wanted to talk about the economy, both the painful parts and the opportunities. There's been some good economic news lately, he said, but that economic recovery hasn't reached everyone yet. "Times are tough out here," he said. "In some places, times have been tough for a very long time."

In the two years Obama spent running for president, he spoke to many people who told him the American dream was slipping out of reach. Times were hard for families and farmers and many young people believed they had to move away from small towns to make a go of it. Success stories like the ethanol plant in Macon, however, show that doesn't have to be true, he said. "I believe that your company, and companies like yours, can replicate that success all across the country." The goal is not just to bring the U.S. back to where it was before the economy took a dive, but to create new long-term growth and prosperity. Then, Obama listed several things that must happen to make that happen, including making schools more competitive and colleges more affordable, as well as reforms for health insurance and Wall Street. "And, it means igniting a new clean energy economy that generates good jobs right here in the United States and starts freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil," he said to applause.

Oil has an environmental cost and it threatens the security of the U.S., he continued. For decades the U.S. has talked about the fact that being dependant on foreign oil is bad news for the country's economy, but working to do something about it has depended upon the price of oil. "We've grown actually more dependent on foreign oil every single year since Richard Nixon started talking about this danger of dependency on foreign oil," he said. While the U.S. talked about the issue, other countries were acting. Places like China and Spain have made serious investments in clean energy, aiming to lead the race, and gain the jobs that come with it. Second best just isn't good enough for this country, Obama said. The U.S. should be first in wind power, first in biofuels and first in second-generation technologies, such as cellulosic ethanol, he said, and that's why energy security has been one of his top priorities. Last year, through the Recovery Act, the administration made a large investment in clean energy, including ethanol, that is intended to create or save up to 700,000 jobs. The goal is to double the capacity for renewable energy from sun, wind and biofuels as well as triple biofuels production in the next 12 years. "That is a goal that we can achieve and it is being worked on right here at Poet, and we're very proud of that," the president said.

Other Reactions
Even those not able to attend the event appreciated its importance. About 100 miles from Macon, Ryland Utlaut, general manager and president of Mid-Missouri Energy, a 100 percent farmer-owned ethanol plant located in Malta Bend, Mo., was excited about the event—even though it wasn't at his plant. "I think it's nothing but a positive for the industry," he told EPM. "No matter what plant affiliation you have, I think we're all proud."

Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol was also happy about the visit. Still, Jennings, and others he talked to, had mixed feelings about the president's speech. While Obama said good things about ethanol's role in the nation's energy security and providing jobs for rural Americans, many were hoping for something more. "Would I have preferred to hear the president express support for E15 or extension of the tax incentive?" he asked. "Of course. I think everyone in the ethanol industry would."

Macon itself, population about 5,500, was abuzz over the fact that the President was coming to their town. Several businesses displayed signs welcoming him and it was a topic of conversation in many stores, restaurants and hotels. "We've never had anything happen like that in Macon," said area resident Howard Smith.

Although several expressed disappointment that the event was by invitation only, the basic theme was that it was a big deal just to have a U.S. president stop by their little town. Angela Bailey, who lives only a quarter of a mile from the ethanol plant, said she was thrilled. "It makes you think that he really does care about Midwest people," she said. EP

Holly Jessen is associate editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at (701) 738-4946 or hjessen@bbiinternational.com.