Ethanol plant brings jobs, market for milo in Kansas

Monday, August 5, 2002

RUSSELL, Kan. -- On the northern edge of town, there's an aroma of fresh yeast around the new ethanol plant. To some it smells like a distillery; others sniff the sweet smell of success.

Success, because since production started last October, the U.S. Energy Partners plant has given a needed boost with jobs and the buying of tons of milo, most of it purchased from area farmers.

"Since the plant started, about 75 percent of our milo goes there. It's nice to have a market like that in your back yard," said Bill Burton, manager of the Agco Inc. elevator within sight of the plant.

Just about any starch will do and much of the nation's ethanol is made from corn. But milo, or grain sorghum, is the crop of choice here since Kansas is the nation's top producer of the grain.

"The majority of milo comes from this area," plant manager Ron Dunbar said. "You want to build the plant where the grain is grown."

Another boom

Russell once laid claim as an oil boomtown with prairies south of town dotted with wellheads. But it also has seen hard times. It suffered from the oil bust in the 1980s and two years ago lost its biggest private employer.

"What we have going on here is another boom," Dunbar said. "We are going to continue to expand out."

He said the ethanol plant and adjoining wheat gluten plant it operates account for 61 jobs.

"It contributes a lot to the community and has had an impact on the businesses in town. Most of the money stays in the area," said Sandra Wood, Russell County Economic Development director.

That's not just limited to the Russell area, said Connie Fischer, director of the state Agriculture Marketing Division.

"It's one of the things that can contribute to a healthy rural economy," she said. "It won't save rural Kansas, but it will help in keeping those communities vital."

The Russell plant is one of five in the state and Fischer said the ethanol industry is likely to grow in Kansas.

"The state is working with five to seven groups seriously looking at ethanol production," she said. "They are either in a feasibility study phase or looking for investors."

At the Russell plant recently, dozens of loaded grain trucks lined up to be weighed and have their load dumped into silos to await its turn to become what many call the fuel of the future.

Dunbar said the facility expects to produce about 40 million gallons of ethanol per year and each bushel makes 2.8 gallons of fuel. That means the plant needs 27,000 bushels of milo each day for its round-the-clock operation, plus the leftover starch from the wheat gluten plant.

"Once a plant gets established you see the price of grain go up five to 10 cents a bushel," he said. "We have got a ready market for the farmers at a good price."

Made like bourbon

At its most basic, ethanol is 200-proof alcohol and is made pretty much the same way as bourbon.

Grain is mixed with water and enzymes to break the starch into sugar so it will ferment. The mixture then is distilled and the alcohol stripped away.

"It's a big still. That's exactly what we are doing up to a point," Dunbar said.

That point is the federal government's requirement that the ethanol be treated so people can't drink it.

Waste isn't part of the vocabulary of ethanol production.

Earlier this year, the company reopened the wheat gluten plant next door where leftover starch is used for ethanol production. Even the used milo is sold as a high-protein feed.

"We are using everything we possibly can," Dunbar said.

Ethanol boosters see it as a growth industry.

"As the desire for clean air grows, so will the demand for ethanol," said Greg Krissek of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association.

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