Their Shops Were All Open

Hundreds of people streamed into the meeting room of the hotel. Dividers slid back, transforming three rooms into one giant space. Rows of chairs, many already staked out by early birds, faced the stage, and I was beginning to regret my decision to come. Public speaking was not my forte and this was the largest group I had ever addressed.

More than 20 years have passed since that morning when I drove three hours west of the Twin Cities through the rolling plains of corn and soybeans comprising Minnesota’s farm belt, but I still remember what I thought when I arrived. I had not been prepared for that room. 

A few weeks prior, a call had come to me from the manager of the town’s ethanol plant. He asked me to address their annual meeting on my employer’s view of renewable motor fuels, like the ethanol produced by his “biorefinery” (his word, not mine). New to the Saint Paul-based environmental-health nonprofit, I had welcomed a chance to tour western Minnesota and speak on this topic.  I cannot tell you anymore what I babbled into the microphone, but I can tell you that day changed my perspective.

I wasn’t raised on a farm. The closest I’d come was growing up with a grandfather who retold his farm experiences at the dinner table. Through work, I toured plants and had even conducted a week of stack emissions testing at an ethanol plant. I knew basics of production, engines, and of ethanol’s historical and political battles with the petroleum industry to gain a share of the U.S. fuel supply.

But this day was different than those experiences. You see, the people in that room were shareholders in a farmer-owned processing plant. Having survived the farm economic crises of the 1980s and decades of stagnant crop prices, they came together, risked, invested, and built a way to “add value to the kernel” before shipping it away as their parents had. Each person entering the room received an envelope at the registration table. Later, I learned each envelope contained that farmer’s dividend check, calculated from the number of shares owned.  It was a happy crowd.

For the drive home I needed fuel. I owned a 1998 flex-fuel Taurus and had scouted E85 fueling stations along the route so I could fill up – sort of a ‘walk the talk’ gesture after visiting with the farmers. On the drive through town, I was struck how different this main street looked compared to that of my own economically depressed hometown in northern Minnesota.  No empty storefronts here. Their shops were all open.

On that warm July day, I vividly recall standing at the pump of the Cenex station in that rural town. Across the highway stood a field of corn. In the distance billowed the steam plume of their ethanol plant. There I stood, filling my tank with fuel grown and produced right in that place! 

The term “sustainability” is misused far too often. But that day I understood the vision of sustainability shared by that community.  Each year, Mother Nature converted solar energy into the energy stored in the corn plants that were cultivated by those farmers. They had built a bio-refinery to convert that stored energy into motor fuel, livestock feed, and other products. The dollars they generated then circulated throughout their community and spun off into benefits extending beyond. They even drove their vehicles on the fuel they “grew.”  Today, so do you and I.

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