Building Goodwill

Ethanol producers are doing good things in their communities.
By Holly Jessen | December 27, 2010

Whether sponsoring educational programs with area schools, hosting plant tours or giving to charities and organizations, directors and employees at ethanol plants work hard to educate their neighbors and positively impact their communities. By so doing, they spread a positive message about ethanol-one person at a time.

Mike Jerke, chairman of the Renewable Fuels Foundation, which works to meet the education, research and strategic planning needs of the industry, believes most ethanol plants are active in their communities but emphasizes that role shouldn't be taken lightly. "It really is up to us producers," he says.

Jerke is general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. LLLP in Benson, Minn., one example among many of an ethanol plant active in its community. Ethanol plant personnel can get involved in their communities by partnering with local schools or even by speaking to area clubs. And, although it would be nice to think that the people who live near ethanol plants understand how the industry benefits the economy and environment, that is not always the case. "We can't take that for granted," Jerke says. "The fact is, there's a lot of misinformation out there."

From the moment he was hired, Mike Erhart, CEO of Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy LLC, was told by board members that community involvement was a priority. It's a mandate he and staff at the ethanol plant are glad to carry out. The plant is, after all, very much a part of Phillipsburg, Kan. It purchases grain from area corn farmers and uses the roads, and the children of employees are enrolled in area schools. "I think it's extremely important that we support them," he says. "If all we do is take, that's just an Ebenezer Scrooge approach."

In Milton, Wis., United Ethanol makes outreach a priority as well. It's important to help people understand the benefits an ethanol plant can bring a rural area and the country as a whole, says Alan Jentz, vice president of grain operations and risk management.

Teach 'em Young

Many ethanol plants focus on students, from elementary on up to college. For example, Poet LLC recently partnered with the Education Resources Center of South Dakota at Dakota State University to add information about the environment and ethanol to existing curriculum. South Dakota history is mandatory learning for fourth grade students, according to Autumn Bates, marketing manager for Poet. A program called South Dakota Road trip, a 13-week virtual trip around the state, is available as a voluntary supplement to the history course. Poet worked with DSU to add several stops to the existing program, she says.

This year the trip will include 22 stops, including one at the Poet Research Center in Scotland, S.D. In addition, Poet helped add information about hydropower, wind energy, energy conservation and the environment. "South Dakota is a state that has huge renewable energy potential and has been working for years to become a net energy exporter," Bates says. "So we feel that ethanol and other sources of renewable energy are a big part of our state's history and future."

Last year, 4,200 South Dakota youngsters participated in the road trip, which starts in January and ends in April. This year the hope is that number will increase to 5,000. "We are well on our way already," Bates adds.

At the end of the classes, Poet will give each student a tree seedling to plant in honor of Arbor Day. This program started last year, Bates says, with fifth graders in the areas around Poet plants across the country planting trees. Tree dispersal this year will be expanded to include the road trip students in South Dakota as well as all fourth graders near Poet plants in other states. "So it will be a big number, a lot of trees being planted," she says.

The RFF, through a partnership with the Future Farmers of America, has created a curriculum on ethanol for high school and college students. Free to educators, it features six units of curriculum in all, which explain what ethanol is, the production process and the impacts the industry has on agriculture, the environment and the economy. Ethanol processes and career opportunities are covered in the renewable fuels sector.

EPM found several examples of individual ethanol plants working directly with their local schools. For more than a year, CVEC has partnered with Benson High School on a renewable energy course to be repeated yearly. The school decided that with an ethanol plant in town, it would use grant funds to teach students about ethanol production. CVEC's lab manager helped the teacher decide what equipment should be purchased and even helped teach the class. In addition to small-scale ethanol production, the students also learned about fuel cells, wind energy and solar energy.

Out of that class, two students completed internships at CVEC, working in the lab for an hour a day during school hours. After the internships were completed, the students were hired to do maintenance at the plant over the summer, Jerke says. Both boys have indicated an interest in studying renewable energy at the college level.

The Poet Biorefining plant in Chancellor, S.D., focuses most of its outreach efforts on children. Adults can often be set in their ways so it's a good place to start changing the attitudes of the next generation. "They're very open minded and willing to listen," says Rick Serie, general manager. The plant stays busy with visits from area schools throughout the year. Lennox, S.D., second graders in a Business Buddies program come to the plant for a tour each year. A Sioux Falls, S.D., environmental class of high school upperclassmen also tours each year to learn how to produce ethanol.

As big supporters of Future Farmers of America, plant employees were glad to work with student members as they prepared a presentation on the pros and cons of E15. The students gave their presentation to the plant's management team in preparation for their trip to a state competition. Several employees are also involved in an annual pheasant hunting event for children, Serie says. In honor of former board member John Ludens, who died of pancreatic cancer, the plant holds an annual golf tournament. The proceeds are given as scholarships to the children and grandchildren of members planning to pursue a career in agriculture or ethanol. At the seventh tournament this year nearly $8,000 was distributed, Serie says. To be considered, a student must write a paper and give a presentation. "We put them through quite an extensive interview process," he says.

The Chancellor plant isn't the only one with a scholarship program for students entering agriculture-related careers. United Ethanol started its own scholarship program in 2010, joining many other ethanol plants that have similar programs.

Children are a big target audience for Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy, too. "Normally if you get the kids interested you get the parents interested as well," Erhart says. He recalls one student whose science fair fermentation project won the state competition and was presented at the national competition. To do the project, he came to the plant for help in learning about fermentation. Lab employees helped him measure ethanol yield using different yeasts without requiring expensive equipment, Erhart says. The student measured output of CO2 with a balloon and by measuring the circumference of the balloon, calculated the fermentation rate. Although plant employees helped, they didn't do the project for him. "We kind of pointed him in the right direction," he says.

Other students have come out to the plant to interview employees and write papers on topics such as food versus fuel. Erhart also went to the local high school to speak to students, not about fuel, but on how to fill out job applications and do well in an interview, something he knows a bit about. "We interview hundreds of people," he says.

Community Outreach

But outreach isn't just about teaching youth about ethanol. Sometimes it's about being out there, flipping burgers at a fundraiser, contributing financially to a good cause or joining the local chamber, Erhart says. That kind of community involvement shows the plant cares about the community.

That's why Prairie Horizon sponsors the second largest rodeo in Kansas. Among the many activities the plant is involved in at the rodeo, it also raises funds for and awareness of breast cancer. During the "Tough enough to wear paint" event, the company gave $1 for every person who came to the rodeo wearing paint, Erhart says. They also passed a hat in the stands for contributions from the fans. All in all, more than $8,000 was raised.

The plant is also a financial supporter of the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. In a related effort to help children, plant employees volunteer with the Big Brother, Big Sister program, and once raised several thousand dollars in a bowling team showdown with another local company. "Basically we're suckers for kids," Erhart says.

United Ethanol often offers plant tours including one this spring when the six finalists of the 2010 Alice in Dairyland contest visited. United Ethanol has hosted foreign visitors, too, including a group from a French cooperative and agricultural officials from Brazil. In addition, the company supports local organizations, such as the food pantry, YMCA, law enforcement and fire department.

Author: Holly Jessen Associate Editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine

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hjessen@bbiinternational.com