Archive for September, 2011

“Freedom” : Powerful documentary film reminds viewers that ethanol is THE bridge to energy independence

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

“Let’s not let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’,” Josh Tickell tells the viewers at one point in the documentary film he made with his wife Rebecca, called “Freedom.”

The ‘good’ is getting off our addiction to oil. The quest for a perfect alternative has held many back in a status quo that is far more dangerous to our environment, our economy and our national security than many people believe–lulled by messages from the oil industry and its allies.

The Tickells won the audience award at Sundance Film Festival in 2008 for their documentary “Fuel,” and “Freedom” picks up where the first film left off. This month, the pair premiered a third film that packs a knock-out punch to oil, telling the story of the cover-up of the extent of BPs wrong-doing in the Gulf oil disaster.

Enlisting the help of a host of celebrities and politicians spanning the political spectrum–from Democrat Wesley Clark to Republican Newt Gingrich, and actors Ed Begley, Jr., Michelle Rodriguez and Amy Smart, and musician Jason Mraz, the film tells the story of how we can get ourselves off oil.

Grain ethanol, according to the film, is the bridge to a future of freedom.

Using E85 now helps farmers, builds the American economy and is friendlier to the environment than oil. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than oil. And biofuels, as they grow into non-food crop based feedstocks–ag waste, grasses, yard clippings and even garbage–a whole future of energy self-sufficiency unfolds. In one scene, a ‘closed-loop’ biorefinery is shown: grain and biomass are used to produce ethanol; the distillers grains are fed to Tilapia (a warm-water ocean fish) raised for human food, and the carbon dioxide from the fermentation process turbo-charges an onsite greenhouse that raises cucumbers.

“Freedom” documents the terrible effects of oil–how oil fills the treasuries of enemy countries that fund terrorism, how it despoils the environment in disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, makes a moonscape in Alberta thanks to Tar Sands mining, and endangers pristine wilderness like Alaska’s north slope, where oil spills are a daily occurrence according to the film. Oil drains off dollars that could be building our economy, but instead build the economies of the petro-producing nations. And the legacy of oil is the loss of many American lives in wars fought to protect natural resources we don’t even own.

The film delves at length into the assertions that increasing biofuels use would bring hunger, deforestation and intensification of agriculture–disproving each assertion and tying them in to the corporate entities that deliberately set out to smear ethanol on behalf of big oil and big food–to give them cover to raise their prices.

“The change over to renewable energy could pump $150 billion dollars into the US economy and create 8 million jobs,” Boise Thomas, the “Freedom Film tour captain” told a movie audience.

“Freedom” was screened Sunday in Minneapolis, the 23rd stop in a 50-city tour. A three-person crew have brought the film from Los Angeles through Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, with a score more locations scheduled, on their way to three final showings in Washington, DC. Boise Thomas and Tracy Mork introduce the film and conduct a discussion afterward. The tour is being documented by videographer Tyler Holtman.

A focus of the film is to empower the audience, to suggest choices that the oil industry does its best to deny even exist.

The film catches up with people who run their conventional vehicles on E30–a thirty percent blend of ethanol. Conversion kits can change a conventional engine into a flex fuel engine that can run up to 85-percent ethanol. Not only does the film show a conversion and then show a mechanic taking apart and examining an engine that has run on E85 for 100,000 miles–showing how it is cleaner and less worn than engines operated over that distance on regular gasoline.

The Tickells have also set up a web site for the film, so people can sign up to purchase copies of the film and screen it themselves. The address is

“Have a screening party for your friends and neighbors who couldn’t make it today,” said Thomas.

Kelly Marczak of American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest joined the discussion after the film, offering information about gasoline and diesel fuel’s impact on lung cancer and on asthma, which is why ALA has supported ethanol and E85 and biodiesel for more than a decade.  The ALA is the state’s clearinghouse for “flex pump” station grants and flex fuel vehicle information.

ALAUM’s communications director Bob Moffitt also attended the screening along with other ALA colleagues and staff from Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which has supported ethanol since the organization was formed in 1978. Moffitt provided information for the discussion, notably that Minnesota leads the nation with 360 E85 locations. Motorists can find those locations at



Another record month for U.S. ethanol exports

(By Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association, in Ethanol, Exports)

U.S. ethanol exports in July set a new monthly record, according to government data released recently. Exports of denatured and undenatured (non-beverage) ethanol totaled 127.4 million gallons in July, edging out the April total of 120.1 million gallons to set a new record. July exports were nearly double the amount exported in June.

Top destinations in July were Canada, Brazil, and European Union. Through the first seven months of 2011, the United States has exported 588.5 million gallons of ethanol, or roughly 7.5% of total output during that same period. Year-to-date exports in 2011 are already more than the combined total of 2009 and 2010 exports. The U.S. ethanol industry remains on pace to export 800-900 million gallons of ethanol for the entire 2011 calendar year.

Exports of denatured ethanol in July topped 100 million gallons for the first time ever, coming in at 104.6 million gallons. For context, this is equivalent to the annual output of a typical large ethanol facility. Canada was the top export destination in July, receiving 33.8 million gallons of denatured product. Brazil imported 16.1 million gallons, while the United Kingdom (14.0 mg), United Arab Emirates (13.6 mg), and Netherlands (12.3 mg) rounded out the top five. Together, the top five destinations accounted for 86% of July denatured ethanol exports.

Our Take:
The Ethanol export numbers can serve as an interesting index for two phenomena–first, increasing exports show the recognition worldwide, that American-made, corn ethanol is a bargain. A high quality fuel that works very well to increase octane and lower emissions of pollutants. And it’s competitive with oil products.

But America’s ethanol exports also serve as an index of a stalled US energy policy. In an ideal world, the US would be using every drop of this high quality, cleaner-burning fuel it is producing to displace imported and high carbon-intensity fossil fuel sources like the Canadian tar sands and the Venezuelan heavy crude.

With a truly effective E15 exemption in place, that ethanol would be put to use in our own economy. And it appears E15 will get here one of these days, thanks to the persistent efforts of RFA, ACE, Growth Energy, NCGA and state corn grower organizations like MCGA.


First frost hits MN early

It’s too early to tally losses, but an early morning dip below the freezing point last Thursday morning affected many crop producers across Minnesota, hitting some while sparing others, according to reports from across the state.

A frost on September 15 is earlier than average and comes in combination with a wet spring this year which delayed planting in some regions. The combination will mean, particularly north and west of the Cities, that some corn and soybean crops have not reached full maturity and the cold snap may arrest development and lower the test weight of grains, oilseeds and other farm products.

“We had about 28 degrees (Thursday morning),” said John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade in Stearns County, and vice president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Mages reported that some crops which had not reached full maturity will be affected by the cold temperatures, “We have many green soybeans that were just starting to turn, corn about half milk line, there will be some damage.”

Many around the state, however, report that it was a close call, with no apparent damage.

“I had 30 degrees (Thursday morning),” Bruce Peterson reported from Northfield. He is an MCGA board member.”The upper leaves did freeze on both the corn and beans but I would expect little loss from it, 

Ryan Buck in Goodhue reported much the same, “It was about 30 here! The tops of the bean leaves are dead but under canopy they are fine! Corn the first few rows some leaves are dead but once again inside the field more it is fine! (There) should not be any yield loss.”

Buck serves as treasurer of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Heading all the way to the western border, in Beaver Creek near Luverne, Lyle Rollag reported a similar close call: “I also had about 30 degrees with about the same damage as Ryan and Bruce. (We) dodged a bullet!”

“Here in Western Renville county, we had a killing frost of 26 degrees at 6:30 a.m.,” said Myron “Mickey” Peterson, a farmer in Sacred Heart, Minnesota and a representative on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council. “The beans that were green are turning black this evening but the ones that were turning yellow should not have too much damage.  The corn is mostly dead from the lack of rain so I think that the early planted corn should be okay.”

Two Willmar area farmers likewise reported frost, which damaged some crops, but spared others.

“Here in western Kandiyohi/eastern Chippewa County we had 29 degrees for a few hours,” said Noah Hultgren, who farms in Willmar and serves on MCGA’s board of directors. “I don’t believe the corn yield will be harmed.  Our edible beans probably lost 15-20 percent of their yield.  Soybeans were probably not hurt as badly, but they’ll definitely be affected.  Sugarbeets for the most part won’t be hurt.”

“We’re not sure about the effect to yields, but it sure smells outside tonight as my soybean leaves shrivel up,” said Willmar farmer Chad Willis, vice chair of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council. “We’ve also seen a lot of white corn leaves today. I am guessing it did not do the yields any good.”

Though weather challenges have played a very prominent role this growing season, across the US, corn producers still expect to bring in 12.5 billion bushels of corn–the third largest harvest in history.

Wetter springs and falls, heavier equipment all add up: Compaction

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A “Tires, Traction and Compaction” Field Day in West Central Minnesota drew about 200 farm operators to learn more about how compaction of soil can reduce yields, and to find out ways to limit the effects of compaction.

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Jodi Dejong-Hughes, along with a committee of volunteers, spent many hours creating an area of layered soils ending in a ditch that created in essence a cutaway view of the soil profile. And then they ran heavy farm equipment on the soil to demonstrate how compaction can vary.

Proper tire inflation is the key to limiting compaction and the yield losses associated with it, according to Ken Brodbeck, a representative of Firestone Ag Tires in DesMoines.

“You’re tire pressure gauge is an essential tool. Carry it with you and use it,” said Brodbeck, who noted that operators often have their tires inflated for proper wear and fuel use on paved and gravel roads, but that once the equipment rolls out onto the field and the operator unfolds the planter, a whole new set of tire pressures are recommended by manufacturers.

The basic rule of thumb is to reduce pressure, sometimes by as much as two-thirds, in order to broaden the footprint of the tire and achieve the best possible distribution of the weight. A tire inflated for the roadway has a smaller footprint and along that footprint it exerts a lot more pressure on the soil. Brodbeck demonstrated this effect with pieces of foam board–the more highly inflated tire left narrower but much deeper impressions.

Brodbeck gave an example of a customer in Iowa who plants 5,000 acres of corn, and who noticed a marked difference in the plants along his wheel tracks where compaction had taken place. By noting the difference in height and number of ears, and using current market prices last year, he was able to calculate that his yield loss in his wheel tracks amounted to $100,000 worth of grain.

Part of the effect was, in order to get that much grain planted in a timely way, the operator had gone to 36-row equipment, and to carry that much weight he had placed truck tires on the planter. 

Prof. Randy Taylor from Oklahoma State University presented information about compaction studies from across the country that have found that as much as 80 percent of the compaction effect happens in the first pass. So another key takeaway is to make sure you use the same wheel tracks again and again to limit to the minimum the area of the field affected by compaction. Also noted was that compaction is much less on dry soil. Comparisons were offered between equipment with tires and equipment on tracks, but the evidence is not yet conclusive in favor of one versus the other.

“If you are filling a grain cart on the go–and grain carts are often the heaviest piece of equipment we have in our fields–make sure once it’s full to follow the wheel tracks back out of the field and avoid driving a diagonal and creating more compaction,” said Jerry Larson, a farmer in Elbow Lake who attended the field day.

Larson this month wraps up his tenure as a member of National Corn Growers and Minnesota Corn Growers Association boards, after many years of active involvement.

“This is an excellent event,” said Larson. “It’s well worth the investment and I hope they stage more compaction field days in other parts of the state.”

Brodbeck noted that heavier equipment is a fact of life for farmers that need to get a lot done in a short period of time. But there is a solution on the horizon. The major equipment manufacturers have become interested in a technology already in use in Europe that allows the operator to vary the tire pressure from within the cab–on the go. A toggle switch would deflate the tires for field pressure, and then another turn of the switch would re-inflate them for roadway pressure. The technology came into use a decade ago in Germany when farmers insisted that manure trucks used to drain lagoons and then drive across fields and inject the manure in the soil do so without creating deep wheel ruts. According to Brodbeck the tires are built to go through this cycle of deflation and inflation several times in an hour. And a related development would include sensor technology that would adjust tire pressure for ambient air temperatures and soil temperature so that in the course of the day, as heat increases tire pressure, the sensor activates the system and releases air from the tires.

“If you figure that my customer with the 36-row equipment could reduce the wheel-track compaction by half, this is a technology that would pay for itself in a very short time,” said Brodbeck. Brodbeck believes the major manufacturers may offer this technology in the US in the next three-to-five years.

Biofuels: Next big fight is keeping RFS II, E15 has a way to go to reach marketplace

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Though the ethanol tax credit remained in place, ethanol opponents counted the House of Representatives’ vote to end VEETC as a win and, with VEETC scheduled to end at the end of this year, those same ethanol opponents are setting their sights on a challenge to the Renewable Fuels Standard II and the minimum required use of biofuels that it sets.

That was Brian Jennings’ take on the current environment for biofules policy in Washington. Jennings, executive vice president of American Coalition for Ethanol, was joined in a panel discussion on biofuels by John Fuher, director of government affairs for Growth Energy; and Geoff Cooper, vice president for research for Renewable Fuels Association.

The three panelists spoke for an hour at the Minnesota Aggricultural Leadership Conference, a two-day gathering in Brainerd, Minnesota, organized by Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

“Our industry has to draw line in sand,” said Jennings. “Our industry has to be ready for this fight on RFS II. Cellulose targets have not been met. Congress and EPA continue to reduce targets for cellulose. There are already legislative attempts to open RFS. Another option–states can ask for waivers if there isn’t enough feedstock. Gov. Perry of Texas has applied for a waiver. We need to be ready for that fight. The good news is that that’s a fact finding mission. EPA looks at facts regarding what’s going on.”

Geoff Cooper added, “The bar was set very high. Any waiver request has to show conclusively high economic harm across the whole economy, not just two cents a pound on bacon.”

The panelists agreed that the super committee that has been charged with reducing the deficit will likely have an impact on renewable fuels policy going forward, but considering the timing–that their proposal is due Nov. 23–they find it highly unlikely that they will attempt to prematurely end VEETC with only a month to go before it runs out. In the process of looking for trillions in cuts, four weeks worth of tax credits on ethanol would offer scant savings.

Fuher said that Growth Energy would focus its lobbying efforts on getting funding and policy support for flexible fuel infrastructure–namely blender pumps that can offer the consumer a range of ethanol blends from E10 up to E30 and E50 all the way through E85. Jennings mentioned that the Thune-Klobuchar effort, though it did not make it into the debt limit raise and spending package passed by Congress, could possibly make it through Congress during the next session. This plan would create a three-year program offering cost sharing to fueling station owners who install blender pumps.

RFA feels E15 is the best bet for the nearest term means to successfully increase ethanol’s share of the transportation energy market.

Cooper sketched the stage that the E15 approval process has reached: “We have lots of technical work to do yet. Job one will be finishing the fuel registration process. We have health effects testing, and the literature review on all existing research on emission of E15 have been done. RFA led the effort to get tests done in conjunction with Growth Energy. We submitted our results (to EPA) in February. We expect to hear the results on E15 in next few months. One of the final legal hurdles we need to jump–state regulatory efforts will be needed, state by state. Some states have quirky regulations that don’t allow anything higher than E10.”

Cooper counseled patience and restraint when it comes to problems in RFSII. With opponents lining up to try to scuttle the biofuels requirements altogether, Cooper said it’s wisest to leave the existing law alone.

“Ethanol cannot qualify as advanced biofuel under RFS II and we don’t think that’s fair,” said Cooper. “However, I think if we ask Congress to go into EISA we are asking for trouble. Reopening RFS to deal with one definition would be risking too much for a relatively small gain.”

Cooper said RFA leaders envision E15 under growing a gradual process of market penetration, beginning in the Midwest, where most ethanol is produced. He noted that the states within PADD2–the federal government’s Petroleum Administration Defense District covering the Midwest–drivers consume 40 billion gallons of gasoline. If just a fifth of those gallons went from E10 to E15, that would represent a sales volume increase of 500 million gallons.


MCGA reaches out at Great Minnesota Get Together

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Friday, August 26 was “A-maize-ing Corn Day” at the Minnesota State Fair, but volunteers and staff from the 6,000-member grassroots Minnesota Corn Growers Association are reaching out to the public all 12 days at Minnesota’s most popular outdoor event.

MCGA Agvocates Leah Joy Johnson and Greg Tusa joined MCGA Outreach and Communications Specialist Jenna Kromann at the Christensen Brothers Stage, right by the Miracle of Birth Center and the FFA State Fair headquarters, to offer games and quizzes throughout the day to educate the public about farming and its products.

“What color is corn?” Johnson asked a young girl who was taking part in the corn plinko game, to win a prize.

“Yellow and green!” the girl replied.

“That’s right! The kernels are yellow and white, and the leaves and stalks are green–go ahead and pick out a prize!” Johnson told the girl, directing her to a table with MCGA water bottles, hacky-sacks, frisbees and other prizes. Another very popular item was a green bead necklace with a toy ear of corn hanging from the end.

Another girl won a prize when she answered a question, true or false, blending ethanol made from corn into gasoline reduces air pollution. She guessed ‘true’ and proceeded to the prize table.

Johnson and Tusa will spend the coming year representing agriculture and informing the public about how farmers work hard to bring a safe, nutritious and abundant supply of food to consumers every day. In exchange, they receive a college scholarship and take part in leadership development and skills building opportunities. MCGA’s third 2011 Agvocate, Kelsey Gunderson, could not take part because she was showing a pig in competitions at the Fair.

Growers from across the state volunteered Saturday at the Moo Booth, one of the most popular attractions at the Fair. The revamped attraction includes a dairy milking parlor, product tastings and giveaways and a series of informative displays. Growers talk about the various parts of a dairy cow’s ration that keep her healthy and producing milk. Farmers talk about the corn, soybeans, hay and other elements of the cow’s diet.

Also new this year at the fair, a second simulator helps kids of all ages–members of the video game generation–to imagine what it’s like working on a farm in the big machinery. MCGA members supported the construction of a tractor simulator, which was installed right inside the Miracle of Birth Center. The simulator was staffed by FFAers who could talk novices through the experience and answer any questions they had about farming. This exhibit joins a combine simulator, that MCGA contributed support for, at the Farm Bureau Building.

One of the most popular attractions in the Horticulture Building was the Farmers Feed Us campaign, where people could sign up to win a year’s supply of groceries (a gift card worth $5,000). Minnesota Department of Agriculture organized and staffed the display. The program is supported by a host of farmer groups, including Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Larger-than-life photo posters of farmers ringed the walls of the Farms Feed Us exhibit, including a picture of MCGA President Greg Schwarz, with his wife Joan, and their children. They farm in Le Sueur, raising corn, soybeans and turkeys.

MCGA also helped reach out and teach the very youngest fair goers about where their food comes from, by supplying corn for chicken feed at the Little Farm Hands at the Fair. This attraction creates a kid-sized, very hands-on, version of a farm, with animals and small plots of crops to help the youngsters realize that food is cultivated, not simply found on a grocery shelf.

“MCGA participation at Minnesota State Fair is a natural, and it’s a win for everyone,” said Schwarz. “People are there with their families and friends, having fun, and we can present them with information, in an entertaining way, that will have a long term affect on their view of agriculture. We reach literally tens of thousands of people at the Fair.”