Archive for June, 2010

Improved ethanol methods increase energy yield

A USDA study cites better corn seeds, fertilizer use, and sources to power ethanol plants for the energy gain.
By MIKE HUGHLETT, Star Tribune
Advances in how efficiently corn can be converted to ethanol have led to an improvement in how much energy is squeezed from corn, according to a study released last week by the United States Department of Agriculture.
The study was based on a survey of 1,814 corn farmers in 19 states and ethanol producers in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. It found that for every British Thermal Unit (BTU) needed to make ethanol, 2.3 BTUS of energy were produced.
That’s up from 1.76 BTUs of energy produced in 2004, a significant improvement, said Ward Nefstead, one of the study’s authors and a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Applied Economics Department.
Genetic improvements to corn seeds have increased starch levels, allowing for more energy to be wrung from corn, he said. The use of alternative energy sources to power ethanol plants — instead of natural gas — has increased.
And farmers are applying nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently, too, reducing the amount of energy needed to grow corn.
Nitrogen use on a per bushel basis has declined by 20 percent since the mid-1990s, the study said. Meanwhile, ethanol yields have increased by about 10 percent over the past 20 years, so proportionately less corn is required to make ethanol.
Ethanol has gone from being an “energy sink” — meaning it took more energy to produce than it yielded — in its early days to being a “substantial net energy gain” nowadays, according to the USDA.

Go to Star Tribune to add your own comments to the story at:
Our Take:
People close to the ethanol industry will not be surprised by the USDA’s findings. It’s thoroughly researched, well-supported conclusions show that A. farmers are becoming more efficient, and B. ethanol producers are becoming more efficient.

The next time you encounter an ethanol naysayer here is your off-the-cuff response: Ethanol has a net energy value almost three times better than gasoline. Ethanol returns 230 percent of the fossil energy inputs—that includes the entire process from planting the seed to delivering the ethanol to the fueling station. From field to wheels. And that compares to 88 percent net energy value for gasoline.

This is the trend: oil’s carbon intensity is growing every day and ethanol’s is being reduced through greater and greater efficiency.

When you add up the energy to excavate and maintain oil wells, transport crude to refineries, crack the crude and refine it down to gasoline, the petroleum companies use up 12 BTUs out of every 100 potential BTUs in order to make gasoline. There’s also the flaring of oil wells—the release of natural gas—either burning it or releasing it unburned—into the air in order to relieve pressure created by the oil well and maintain its safety.

In fact the 12 in 100 is an old number. As more petroleum comes from deep offshore wells, from strip mining of tar sands and from century-old, tapped out oil wells where heated water jets are used to force the remaining oil to the surface (a growing number of oil wells in the United States fall into this category)—oil production becomes more energy intensive, as a whole. And the 12 in 100 loss number also doesn’t include the portion of fuel used by the military that is dedicated to protecting the shipping channels that assure the free flow of oil around the world.

Then there’s the question of putting carbon into the atmosphere—the more energy it takes to capture the oil, refine it and transport it, the higher the carbon intensity. While oil’s carbon intensity is growing every day, ethanol’s is being reduced through greater and greater efficiency.

Due more to the volatility of natural gas prices over the past decade than any other reason, the ethanol industry has begun to consider—some have already adopted—biomass-based power as an alternative to natural gas. With the potential for carbon legislation arriving soon in America, ethanol plants are embracing the concept. And it’s a good move for farmers, too, with the potential to make byproducts of crop production like corn leaves and cobs and wheat straw into a revenue stream for farmers, while providing a more price-stable energy source for ethanol plants.

MCGA Agvocates, 2010-11: Katie Zenk

“We hear all the time that agricultural producers are a small fraction of the population, so you know young people in agriculture is an even smaller group,” said Katie Zenk, 20, a junior at the University of Minnesota who joined Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s “Agvocates” program this spring. She said, “We need to make connections with our peers—it helps strengthen our ability to speak up for agriculture.”

One of her first opportunities in the program was attending the recent Minnesota Agriculture Ambassadors Institute in Mankato, organized by Minnesota Pork Producers Association to teach young people effective ways to reach out and teach the public what really happens on the farm.

She said, “Being an MCGA Agvocate and attending events like the Ambassadors Institute helps someone like me develop relationships and develop the network of people my age involved in agriculture. When we get together we find that we can be as different as the different types of production and commodities out there, but we also find a lot of commonalities. It’s great to share ideas with other young people who want to speak up and support agriculture.”

MCGA created its Agvocates program this year as part of its ongoing commitment to develop leadership, especially among the next generation of farmers and people involved in farm business. MCGA, a 6,000-member grassroots commodity organization, selected Zenk and three other college students to participate in the Agvocates program, which is a year-long series of trainings, leadership experiences, networking opportunities, all wrapped together with a scholarship towards their education.

Zenk grew up on a small farm north of Danube, Minnesota where her family raised Hereford Beef cattle. Throughout her growing up, Zenk raised poultry as part of her participation in youth agriculture organizations. She has culminated her seven years in FFA with a role as a state officer, and plans to run for national office. She is studying applied economics at the University.

Zenk attended a social media workshop conducted by Michele Payn-Knoper at MCGA’s headquarters in Shakopee, and she enjoyed the chance to expand her knowledge in that area, with one of the most well respected agriculture advocates working today. Payn-Knoper runs a weekly Internet-based chat that attracts people across the whole spectrum of agriculture to talk about the important issues for farmers. Zenk has participated in some of those online chats and looked forward to meeting Payn-Knoper in person.

Katie’s first big advocacy-via-Internet opportunity came this spring, when she helped with the Ag Awareness Day on the main campus of the University of Minnesota. Zenk helped establish the Facebook companion page that promoted the event in advance and continues to develop agricultural awareness among university students. The Facebook page is laying the groundwork for Ag Awareness to be an ongoing event. (See the Facebook page at

Katie’s next opportunity as an Agvocate will be FarmFest, where she will have the chance to interact with people at the event, to tell them about all the products made from corn and the economic impact of corn and its value-added products here in Minnesota.

However, her Agvocate work takes up only part of her summer schedule. Zenk is spending the summer interning in the government relations department at Land O’Lakes, Inc., the Minnesota based company that is America’s second largest farmer- cooperative, serving 300,000 producers through a thousand member cooperatives.

“It’s an interesting view of the political realm and offers quite a wide range in what to get involved in,” said Zenk.

Katie noted that her degree program has a trade policy emphasis, and a mass communications/journalism minor. Depending on the outcome of her run for national office in the FFA, Zenk is considering applying to intern next year at the USDA, which would help her in her career goal of attaining an agriculture-related government position or work in public relations at an agricultural company.

MCGA Agvocates, 2010-11: Mercedes Lee

One idea that really impressed Mercedes Lee at Minnesota Agricultural Ambassadors Institute is the notion that everyone connected to farming needs to pitch in to educate the broader public about agriculture. Individual efforts can fuel a major change in public perception, she believes.

 “If we think other people can advocate we can get lazy—we all need to step up and join in the effort,” said Lee, 19, who is going to be a sophomore at North Dakota State University in Fargo this coming year. She said, “If I do this, maybe I can convince someone else to advocate in their own way. Each person has their own effect. If we all do it in our own way, together we will be able to affect the big picture.”

 Lee was selected to join MCGA’s Agvocates program this spring, along with three other college students. It is a yearlong series of trainings, leadership experiences and networking opportunities, all wrapped together with a scholarship towards their education. Each student is pursuing a degree in some aspect of agriculture.

 The NDSU sophomore is pursuing a double major in crop and weed science and in management and communications

 Lee said, “My goal is to be either a sales agronomist or go into seed sales. I’d like to work with farmers, with the seed dealer and the seed company and be the middle person for all three different entities.

 The two parts of her degree program are aimed at outfitting her with the full set of skills that are needed in an agribusiness career, she feels.

 “My goals are that I would be able to, at the same time, have the knowledge in agronomy, but also to know how to talk with people, going to talk with farmer,” said Lee. “I’ve seen where people in these roles don’t know how to communicate, they don’t know how to learn what the farmer really wants, and this leads to frustration and real problems. I’d like to be the person the farmer could go to, to get what they need, and also be the one who can communicate about new seed traits and let producers know what’s happening in the industry.”

 So, as an MCGA Agvocate, Lee will be traveling to events like FarmFest, to help with outreach to the public on behalf of corn producers.

 That’s not all she’s doing this summer. She’s also putting in hours as an intern for the AsGrow DeKalb division of Monsanto. In that role she divides her time between crop scouting and developing a research project and presentation that involves interviewing crop producers who have planted several new Monsanto varieties, including RoundUp ™ Ready-To-Yield (Generation 2) and VT Double Pro, a variety stacked with two genetic traits that protect against corn borer.

“The key when you advocate is to represent the whole agriculture industry,” said Lee, who grew up on a crop farm, and even after her family sold it when she was nine years old, she continued to stay connected to agriculture by raising sheep. “Advocacy is mostly about getting knowledge to people—things that we people who live the farm life take for granted. When I look out on the field and say ‘oh that’s wheat, I know what it’s used for, how it’s processed, what products it becomes. And the person in the cities sees the flour on the shelf in the store and it’s just there—they don’t have that knowledge of everything that went into producing it. Sharing that knowledge can really open their eyes and help them see farming from the farmer’s point of view.”

NASA boss investigated for possible conflict of interest on biofuel project

Charlie Bolden asked Marathon Oil for its opinion on Project OMEGA — but he has financial interest in Marathon, which has a competing project

While millions of barrels of spilled oil choke the Gulf of Mexico, NASA is working on an ocean-based biofuels venture that could revolutionize clean-energy production at sea and treat wastewater at the same time.

The scientist running the $10 million experiment, called Project OMEGA, uses words such as groundbreaking and exciting to describe his baby. But there’s a hitch.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden doesn’t believe in OMEGA — and has sought to slow it down.

The reason: He was advised against it by Marathon Oil — the Texas-based company on whose board Bolden sat until he was named NASA administrator last year. The former astronaut and Marine Corps general also still holds as much as $1 million worth of Marathon stock.

So far, the project is proceeding without any signs of obvious interference, according to scientists and officials. But Bolden’s decision to vet OMEGA with a company in which he has a significant financial interest — and that also has invested in a competing biofuels proposal — has prompted an investigation by the NASA inspector general.

For the full story, including a very interesting illustrated primer on this algae-to-biofuel based technology, go to,0,4126603.story

Our Take:
Whether it is NASA administrators owning oil stock while they make decisions on alternative fuel projects, or public officials like Mary Nichols, the director of California’s Air Resource Board, who impact such public policies as low carbon fuel standards while owning significant capital in the oil industry—this shows what is wrong with the current model of energy production and distribution in the U.S.—it is owned by megawealthy multi-national corporations with no incentive to see “beyond petroleum,” as BP used to claim in its public relations materials. The number of interested parties involved in government and the resulting cozy arrangements that arise do not serve America’s public interest. Big Oil is a dinosaur, and one that’s size by its very nature taints energy policy. The oil companies have very little incentive to act in the best interest of local communities or the environment.
Farmer-owned energy, specifically ethanol and biodiesel production offer the groundbreaking model for locally-owned energy. A farmer-owned ethanol plant represents a major capital investment in a specific locality, an investment that may be the sole capital investment of its company, and in any case will not be easily packed up and moved overseas. As a major employer and fixture in its community, a farmer-owned ethanol plant has a huge stake in being a good neighbor, and assuring that the local environment and residential neighbors are safeguarded.
Now that gooey tar balls are reaching the white sands of the Florida panhandle and gulf coast, we have to say we think BP doesn’t have the same incentive to be a good neighbor or they never would have undertaken the risky venture that has led to the environmental disaster that has dominated the news for two months now.
We hope leaders at every level have the vision and the will to clean house and sever ties between Big Oil and those who shape energy policy. And we hope NASA starts by handing Holden a pink slip.

MCGA Agvocates, 2010-11: Derek Mulhern

Derek Mulhern, at 20 years old, has a very pragmatic approach to his ultimate career goal. Now a junior at the University of Minnesota in agricultural education, he plans to intern in agribusiness (with room to indulge his interest in politics) while he completes his degree, teach agriculture in order to refine his ability to communicate about the farming that he loves, and ultimately go into business for himself, traveling around the country and teaching people how to advocate on behalf of agriculture.

 He grew up on a 400-head dairy farm in Fountain, near Rochester, where his family also raises corn and alfalfa.

 Mulhern is one of the four very impressive young people who have signed on with MCGA to be an “Agvocate”. It is a year-long series of trainings, leadership experiences, networking opportunities, all wrapped together with a scholarship towards their education.

 At the Minnesota Agricultural Ambassadors Institute, a program sponsored by the Minnesota Pork Producers, Mulhern feels that he had a number of valuable experiences and learned many useful things. One presenter offered methods for effective advocacy, and advised these young leaders to have both “elevator speeches” and “pocket stories.”

 Pocket stories are the stock in trade for advocates of all kinds, but are especially effective for promoting a positive view of agriculture. It’s a small repertoire of personal stories that the speaker knows very well, which can be adapted to the particular situation and topic of discussion. Especially effective for pocket stories are sketches of a time of crisis, or a turning point, when the speaker felt close to giving up, but instead found inspiration and kept going.

 Elevator speeches, on the other hand, are ready sound-bites to share with anyone in a chance encounter, such as in an elevator, that has a positive message that will stick in the mind of the listener, and can be conveyed in 30 seconds or so. It’s a way of being prepared to respond to any one of the common misperceptions or anti-agriculture representations that are common in public discussions and the media.

 “The presenter surprised me at times,” said Mulhern. “One thing he said that really went home for me is that we are advocating 100 percent of the time. Even when you are on your farm and not with the public, but it’s something the public could or might see, you need to conduct yourself in such a way that you can talk about it and be proud of it. Advocating is total lifestyle, not just something that you do part of the time.”

 The Agricultural Ambassadors Institute included field trips, where they visited Christensen Farms in Sleepy Eye, the largest family-owned swine operation in the country, which raises approximately three million pigs a year. They also visited an implement dealer. The inherent message was that with his interest in politics, Mulhern is looking forward to the networking opportunities and events during this election year that will draw political folks of all stripes—things like AgriGrowth Council annual meeting and FarmFest Forums will be a great chance to meet important state and national leaders.

 Mulhern has something of a tagline that he plans to include in many of advocacy opportunities, whether they are pocket stories or elevator speeches. Derek likes to say, “Whether you are 13, 33 or 83, you need to continue to advocate for agriculture, because agriculture is for all of us.”

Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council welcomes new officers July 1

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

At their June 16 meeting, the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council (MCR&PC) elected new officers. Those elected include: Jerry Ploehn of Alpha, Chair; Chad Willis of Willmar, Vice Chair; Richard Peterson of Mountain Lake, Treasurer; and Lori Feltis of Stewartville, Secretary. The new slate of officers becomes effective July 1.

Ploehn, who has served as vice chairman of MCR&PC this past year is excited to take the reins, pleased with the success of the immediate past chairman, Myron “Mickey” Peterson and thankful for the support of farmers across the state through participation in the check-off fund.

“I definitely want to tell the farmers out here a great big thank you for supporting the check-off and making our research and promotion projects possible,” said Ploehn who has farmed all his life in Alpha, Minnesota, in Jackson County. “I’m excited about some of the new ethanol promotion things we are working on, which should come to fruition soon, and I want to thank Mickey for the great job he did this year as chairman.”

Cooperation among farm and commodity groups will continue to be a focus, to make sure corn grower check-off dollars go as far as possible.

“We will be working with livestock groups to put projects together,” said Ploehn. “We will be working together with other commodity groups as we have in the past,
and working with the ethanol industry representatives as well—American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy—to promote blender pumps, and to get ethanol available in a lot  more states…. We have another seminar in August where we will be getting together with other commodity and livestock groups. The key thing is to find areas of common interest and common ground, where we can work together for the betterment of all.”

Ploehn noted that ideas for projects and promotions come from many sources—not only grower leaders and media relations firms, but also from the grassroots, from the farmer members themselves. Ploehn encouraged people to visit the MCR&PC booth at FarmFest to catch up on the latest research projects and advertising campaigns, and to offer any thoughts they have about ways to strengthen the market and the value of corn.

Ploehn’s leadership experience includes a term as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association in the early 1990s, a previous term as chairman of MCR&PC four years ago, and continuing involvement in biotech issues leadership. He has served on the biotech action teams for both National Corn Growers Association, where the focus has been increasing farmer use and profitability in biotech corn varieties; and also for U.S. Grains Council (a position he still holds), where the focus is on gaining consumer acceptance among feed companies and the general public in overseas markets for biotech commodities. With nearly ten years experience on the MCR&PC, Ploehn has also worked closely with corn growers’ partner AURI, the state-sponsored Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute.

S.D. to be No. 1 in blender pumps

$1M in federal money could add up to 100 fuel tools in 40 communities
(By Thom Gabrukiewicz)

Move over Minnesota, South Dakota now will become the nation’s leader in the number of ethanol blender pumps.
Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Wednesday announced the recipients who will divvy up $1 million in federal stimulus money that could add up to 100 blender pumps at 49 gas stations in 40 South Dakota communities.
Station owners applied for grants worth up to a $10,000 per pump to offset installation costs.
Blender pumps cost about $25,000 each.
The equipment mixes unleaded gas with higher blends of ethanol, from 10 percent ethanol for regular passenger cars and trucks to 85 percent ethanol for flex-fuel vehicles. The pumps would allow consumers to choose their blend, even ethanol-free gas.
“As of June 1, there were 157 service stations with blender pumps in 14 states,” Daugaard said in a statement. “Minnesota was in the lead with 49, and South Dakota had 42 of them. I’m proud to say that this grant program will make South Dakota the national leader in ethanol blender pumps.”
Full article at:

Our Take:
We love a little good natured competition—now that South Dakota has thrown down the gauntlet, it’s up to Minnesota to take this up starting next January when the government reconvenes, with a new governor and new elected representatives in the legislature, to see if Minnesota can’t up the ante once again. So far, we’ve gotten to 60 blender pumps using a combination of funds from federal and NGO sources like MCGA and American Lung Association in Minnesota. Isn’t it time for the state to find some more dough, so we can keep this poker game going? It’s one where everyone leaves the table a winner.