Ethanol Industry Eyes Rebound

Times have been tough for the nation’s ethanol producers and the COVID-19 outbreak has only made matters worse. But as states begin to reopen businesses and people emerge for shelter in place orders, some in the industry find reason for optimism.

“The nation’s ethanol industry has been bleeding pretty hard,” says Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont and former chair of the Renewable Fuels Association board of directors. “The last couple of years have been tough, but the last few months things have been tough to the Nth degree. I’ve been in the industry for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A combination of factors has led to sharp reduction in ethanol demand and consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted small refinery exemptions to dozens of oil refineries, relieving them of the obligation to blend ethanol with gasoline under the Renewable Fuel Standard. EPA granted exemptions to refineries that biofuel advocates say should never have been granted exemptions.

“Small refinery exemptions have been a destructive force for ethanol demand,” says Craig Willis, senior vice president for global markets for Growth Energy, the nation’s largest biofuels trade group. “The exemptions reduced the amount of ethanol they need to buy to meet their obligations under the renewable fuel standard. Four billion gallons have been exempted since 2016.”

Willis says U.S. ethanol production was just under 16 billion gallons in 2019.

“Economics have been ugly for a while with all the small refinery exemptions. Things turned absolutely brutal when Russia and Saudi Arabia went to war with each other over oil and just bashed the oil price,” Doyal adds. “Ethanol price fell like a rock. That started driving plants into negative margins. Then suddenly, because of COVID-19, everybody stopped driving. That lack of demand shows up very quickly.”

Major Impact

Minnesota has 18 ethanol plants with combined capacity of about 1.3 billion gallons year. Iowa boasts more than 40 plants and capacity of more than 4 billion gallons. Several plants in Minnesota have shut down or are running at reduced capacity because of the reduced ethanol demand. Guardian Energy in Janesville is shuttered at least through the end of May. Corn Plus in Winnebago closed in September. Others have trimmed their production.

Willis says small refinery exemptions and plummeting oil prices hurt ethanol production, but reduced demand due to coronavirus-related restrictions has been even more impactful.

“The biggest problem is nobody is driving,” Willis contends. “At its lowest point, gasoline consumption was reduced by 46 percent in the United States. Since ethanol is in 98 percent of gasoline, ethanol is going to follow. That’s where we’ve really been hurt.”

Willis says the United States is the largest gas consuming nation in the world, using about 35 percent of all gasoline.

“When the U.S. stops using gas, it’s going to be tough to hide,” Willis adds.

Loss of ethanol demand and reduced production means farmers have lost a key corn market.

Madelia farmer Harold Wolle is a member of the National Corn Growers board. He says what’s happening in the ethanol sector is directly impacting corn farmers. Corn prices hit their lowest marks in over three years.

“Numerous ethanol plants have closed, and a number have cut back to less than 50 percent of their normal production. We’re seeing that impact in estimates of increased corn carryover for next year,” Wolle says. “It’s tremendous the amount of devastation that has been caused.”

Doyal says the reduction in ethanol consumption has knocked corn demand down by 50 percent, and “that’s a big number.”

While some ethanol plants in Minnesota and Iowa have shut down or reduced their capacity, Doyal says Al-Corn has continued to run. They are also producing ethanol used in making hand sanitizer.

“Sanitizer isn’t a replacement, but it’s something,” Doyal says.

Look Ahead

Doyal says things are looking up for the ethanol industry as life in the U.S. gradually returns to normal. He says demand for ethanol in the Twin Cities, a big market for Al-Corn, is increasing. However, his plant is still operating below full capacity.

Even with increased ethanol demand, Doyal expects some of the nation’s shuttered ethanol plants will stay that way for good.   

“We are an industry that needed to get right-sized to demand. We were built beyond where demand was already,” Doyal explains.

Willis says gasoline consumption was down as much as 46 percent, and as gasoline demand goes, so does ethanol. If Americans start driving more again, ethanol demand should follow suit.

“Right now, we are seeing demand slowly start to come back up,” Willis says. “I fully expect that as demand increases, our producers will speed their plants back up or turn them back on as the market tells them to – but it may take time to get back to normal.”

Willis says the U.S. exports substantial amounts of ethanol around the world. Opportunities for increased exports to countries like China, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Japan is reason for optimism. Ethanol was included in the list of agriculture products China agreed to buy in the Phase One trade deal with the United States.

Exports are vital for ethanol producers, but according to Willis, the first order of business that’s needed to get the nation’s ethanol industry back on track is to stabilize domestic markets.

“We have to have the U.S. market back driving close to normal. That’s my first ask,” Willis says. “Second, what would affect our producers the quickest would be for China to start buying.”

In addition to resumption of typical domestic driving habits and increased exports, resolving the small refinery exemption would give ethanol producers confidence that the RFS is going to work as it was intended, according to Willis.

Agriculture Presses on in Uncertain Times

Adapting to conditions outside of their control is nothing new for people involved in agriculture. Weather conditions, market uncertainty and government actions alter farm management decisions on a regular basis. Global pandemics, though, are uncharted territory.

“This is more disruptive than anything we could have possibly imagined,” says JoDee Haala, director of public affairs for Sleepy Eye-based Christensen Farms.

The onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting disruptions have impacted nearly every U.S. citizen. Agriculture, deemed an essential industry, is not immune from those challenges. However, farmers and agribusinesses are committed to providing food for the nation and beyond, so they press on with spring field work and livestock care despite unprecedented challenges.

“If a time like this doesn’t prove to people that agriculture and feeding the world is our foundation and is extremely important, then I don’t know what would,” says Ashley Leivermann, chief human resources officer for Crystal Valley Cooperative. “I’m proud of the industry from the standpoint that it is resilient. Whatever the challenge is, we’ll adapt. We don’t have the option to not get the crop in the ground. We don’t have the option not to feed animals, because people and animals need to eat. It doesn’t matter there’s a COVID-19 outbreak going on or not, they need to eat.”

Minnesota’s livestock sector, an economic strength across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa because of prolific hog production, is facing drastic disruptions. Hog processing facilities in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota are shuttered because of COVID-19 outbreaks among plant workers. Markets for processed pork products like bacon are also in disarray because restaurants and food service venues are closed or offer takeout options only.

“So, not only is it a lack of a place to go with processed product, it’s also a lack of a place to go with live animals that are ready to enter the food supply chain,” Haala says. “The situation is unfathomable, especially when the need for safe, nutritious affordable food has never been greater.”

Some hog farmers are faced with the need to try to find willing processors to take their animals in an already taxed system. The other unthinkable option is to cull otherwise healthy animals because there’s no place to take them for processing and no place to keep them.

Livestock producers are well versed in animal health management and animal agriculture leaders put an emphasis on keeping cattle, hogs, turkeys or chickens healthy. While farm worker safety is also a priority, dealing with a human disease that is disrupting the food chain is new territory.

“We’ve had to deal with animal diseases in the past, but when you have a disease that potentially impairs your workforce, that’s a different kettle of fish that requires many different actions on the part of players in the industry to figure out how to continue to operate,” explains Christensen Farms Vice President Gary Koch. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”


Soldiering On

Despite stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines, agriculture activities press on in the adjusted reality. Farmers are diligently planting crops and livestock operators remain committed to feeding and caring for their animals. The coronavirus may be a new challenge but dealing with adversity is part of the fabric of farming.

“The reality is that people need to eat, and there is no place in the world that has the geographic characteristics that southern Minnesota and the Midwest has,” Haala says. “There is absolutely no place better in the world to be growing food, both the crops that go on to feed people but also feed animals to supply the protein. What makes people get up and do that every single day? I think it’s just in their bones and it’s the fabric of who they are.”

Farmers are adapting to new safety practices as are employers and employees in all aspects of agribusiness. From factory workers and livestock managers to sales representatives and fertilizer applicators, businesses are striving to ensure worker safety. Healthy workers are stepping up to do their jobs to produce healthy food.

“My opinion is that folks recognize what they do is important,” Koch contends. “This is an essential industry and we have the noble purpose of feeding the world. Quite frankly, I think that is a motivating factor for people and it causes them to want to continue to come to work. You’ve got a bunch of committed people in this essential industry who are trying to figure out how to keep the wheels on the car, and keep producing food so that the American people can have the assurance that that food will still be there every day. That’s the battle going on right now.”


Regional Strength

GreenSeam Director Sam Ziegler isn’t surprised farmers and agribusinesses are stepping up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Southern Minnesota and northern Iowa were built on the strength of the region’s agriculture economy and continue to flourish because of agriculture’s contributions.

“Agriculture has always been a humble industry,” Ziegler says. “Just because we are now labeled as essential does not change the passion people in this industry have. There is a passion to produce cleaner energy such as ethanol. There is a passion to raise animals to nourish families near and far. There is a passion to care for the soil and work with whatever Mother Nature throws at us. There is a passion for finding solutions to grow more nourish food. Right now, more than ever there is a passion to not let fellow Americans down by keeping food on your table.

Ziegler says that while the dark clouds are hanging over agriculture now with historically low prices and a supply chain traffic jam, agriculture remains strong. Farmers are in the process of planting another crop, confident in the fact they’ll harvest a crop this fall.

“These times have not stopped this hope or motivation to plant new seeds,” Ziegler contends. “This industry is the foundation of our economy for as long as Minnesota and Iowa have been states. Looking into the future, it will remain to be the foundation of our economy. In times like this, agriculture remains a bright star and I am proud to have my career in agriculture.”

Far beyond economic reward, many in agriculture are willing to step up in the face to challenges because of their commitment to providing for others.

“I think people from coast to coast are counting on the ability of our region to continue to make food to maintain the country and keep putting food on the table during this time of crisis,” Koch says.

“Agriculture is a pretty resilient industry,” Leivermann says. “Agriculture is regularly being faced with challenges that we need to figure out how to adapt and overcome. Overall, I think the agriculture industry is just so resilient because we’re constantly being faced with something that we can’t control.”

Beyond supplying food for consumers, Haala says farmers and agribusinesses are contributing much more. Christensen Farms has donated to 17 food banks across the Midwest and is the lead partner in the Brown County United Way Project Lunchbox, which provides weekend meals to kids. A group of Christensen employees has also sewn and donated hundreds of masks.

“People want to help people,” Haala says. “You can see that evidence all over the place.”

Region’s Hog Industry Rattled by Coronavirus

It’s no secret that hogs are an important economic driver in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the U.S. Nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa, on one of the state’s more than 6,200 pig farms. Iowa producers marketed almost 48 million hogs in 2018.

Minnesota, meanwhile, ranks 2nd in the value and number of market pigs raised. The state’s hog farmers marketed 16.6 million pigs in 2018.  Over $6 billion in economic activity is generated each year thanks to Minnesota pork production. The hog industry also creates and supports an additional 44,000 affiliated jobs in construction, trucking, feed milling, accounting, food processing and more. Hog production creates demand for millions of bushels of corn and soybeans needed to feed those animals.

Positive COVID-19 cases have forced the temporary closure of several Midwestern meat packing plants. The repercussions are being felt throughout agriculture.

“One thing that’s immediately upon us is how to maintain stream of live production to the processor,” says Gary Koch, vice chair of Christensen Farms of Sleepy Eye. “To the extent that processors close or reduce capacity, the ability to deliver hogs is impaired. If the ability to deliver hogs is disrupted, then producers have to figure out what they’re going to do with those animals on an intermediate term basis.”

Hog production and meat processing are closely aligned so there is a nearly continuous flow of animals from the farm to the packer, then to the consumer. Disruptions at the processor creates a logjam along the supply chain.

“At some point there’s no longer room for everything. So you have to look about for all kinds of alternatives, with respect to maintaining stocking densities with buildings that are acceptable for the workforces and the animals, that may lead to the need to cull herds in order to keep the facilities from being overcrowded,” Koch explains.

Christensen Farms has about 1,000 employees and 1,500 contracted growers. Plant closures are being felt all along the supply chain, but the priority remains with the people involved.

“On the front end of this, we were very focused on the impact to the people and our farms,” says JoDee Haala, director of public affairs for Christensen Farms. “We’re making sure that people are protected and that they aren’t having to choose between having a paycheck and having to stay home to care for a family member or a child, or feeling like they need to continue to come to work if they are feeling ill. Making sure that the employees are taken care of and feeling supported through this, is priority number one.”

In addition to plant shutdowns, the temporary closure of restaurants and food service venues has also had a negative impact on the hog industry. Haala says a large portion of the nation’s bacon supply is sold to food service. Bacon also props up the entire hog carcass value.

“When it comes to the value the producers are being paid, that has eroded substantially because there is limited demand for bacon,” Haala says. “It’s all basic economics–supply and demand. Right now, we’ve seen value fall out for producers in a very substantial way that’s impacting their income.”

Plant closures are also forcing some farmers to euthanize otherwise healthy hogs because there is no room for processing.  Many farmers have changed how they feed the pigs to slow their growth, but that only works for a short period of time.  When the pigs get too large, the processing facilities physically can’t harvest them.  It’s an unthinkable situation for farmers whose focus is on caring for animals to ensure a safe, healthy food supply.

There is also concern that loss of processing plant capacity, even temporarily, will affect the nation’s food supply. Minnesota’s pork industry leaders are working to navigate these challenging times.

“What the struggle is about right now,” Koch says, “is how to manage and enable the supply chain that provides food to people to survive this crisis and come out on the other end.”

Area Farmers Face Unique Challenges during Planting Season

COVID-19 Requires Critical Steps to Avoid Stress and Illness

Mankato, MN – Spring planting is always a hectic time for farmers; and a worldwide pandemic only amplifies the stress and uncertainty that accompanies the season.

“Planting season means long days and lots of unknowns for area farmers,” says Kevin Paap, President of Minnesota Farm Bureau “It’s critical we also take care of our health. Now more than ever we need all farmers and their families to stay well.”

The South Central Healthcare Coalition offers important tips for farmers to stay healthy and keep their operations going:

  • Practice social distancing; at home, around the farm and out in the fields
  • Limit non-essential visitors to your farm
  • Keep sanitizing supplies handy and wash your hands frequently, especially before and after meals, handling farm products and activities with other people
  • Clean and sanitize equipment after each use including controls of vehicles and machinery
  • Use technology to communicate as much as possible. Use a phone to take a picture of a broken part and send it to the dealer. Call ahead to make sure parts are in stock and ask the dealer to place the part outside the door
  • Make sure you have a written contingency plan in case you, a family member or one of your workers becomes sick, and share that plan with the people involved

“Farmers are the backbone of our community and our region,” says Paap “And many days, especially during long hours of planting season, the stress of being a farmer in these times can become almost too much. That’s why it’s important farmers know they’ve got someone they can talk to.

The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s free and confidential. The number to call is 833-600-2670.


The South Central Healthcare Coalition is a collaboration of private and public partners who work together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergency events. Coalition members include healthcare organizations, hospitals, public health agencies, public safety, emergency management, long-term care facilities, educational institutions and others.

Marie Wood                                                                                                                  507-317-3547

People Spark Consulting – Kristen Ireland & Erin Mies

9 Things Businesses Can Do Today For Their Employees Amid Our Changing World Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.  You can’t overdo this right now. This does not mean communicating only when you have information or decisions. Communication needs to be consistent and ongoing.  If you have no updates or no new information, share what you have said […]

GreenSeam Launches First Ever Minnesota State of Ag Report

MANKATO, Minn. (March 24, 2020) — For the first time in the State of Minnesota, GreenSeam and numerous volunteers, partners and residents have helped to conduct and launch the Minnesota State of Ag Report.

The State of Ag Report is a comprehensive survey of Minnesota’s agribusinesses and related businesses. It reveals the perceptions and opinions on the economy and other major issues impacting ag businesses, with an emphasis on education and talent attraction and retention. GreenSeam needs business leaders, human resources professionals and executive level professionals to provide their expertise and insights. 

The State of Ag report includes five focus groups held in five locations in the GreenSeam. Thank you to all hosts from helping make this report become a reality.

  • Austin, Development Corporation of Austin
  • Fairmont, Fairmont Economic Development
  • Faribault, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Mankato, Greater Mankato Growth
  • Marshall, Economic Development Authority

Participants were asked to share challenges and solutions their businesses face each day. The focus groups provided a strong reach of southern Minnesota. GreenSeam was worked hard to capture both the concerns and opportunities businesses are looking at today and long-term.

The report will give our agriculture industry and rural Minnesota a much-needed voice in what is happening. With access to the knowledge of leaders and more information, we can properly address the challenges employers have today and prepare for their future needs. The information in the report regarding talent needs will be shared with our educational partners to ensure our education system is on track. This will also allow the GreenSeam to further define the full breadth of agriculture.

GreenSeam asked for individuals representing the following business classifications to participate: Farmers, Food & Beverage, Livestock, Agronomy / Crop Science, Agri-Services / Business, Transportation / Energy, and Professional Services.

Tom Mason of Mason Public Affairs lead the focus groups and the creation of the initial survey. Report results and discussion will be shared on KTOE radio 1420 AM, 102.7 FM starting at 3:00 pm each day. The topics are as follows:

  1. March 24: National Ag Day, Inaugural MN State of Ag Report Released, Talent Shortage
  2. March 25: Regional Collaboration, agribusiness, education, etc.
  3. March 26: Careers in Ag
  4. March 27: Next Steps for ag in our region

Thank you to our sponsors, Ardent Mills, Bremer Bank, Crystal Valley Coop, Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture, Minnesota Pork Producers and Minnesota State University-Mankato. Thank you also to our community hosts; Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce, Development Corporation of Austin, Fairmont Economic Development, Marshall Economic Development Authority and Greater Mankato Growth. Also, a special thanks to team at the Southern MN Agricultural Center of Excellence for working on this with us.

“This is a big day for GreenSeam to share our inaugural report so we can begin to tackle the challenges and start to leverage our strengths to drive future economic growth in our region!” said Sam Ziegler, Director of GreenSeam. “The commitment our regional partners have made to collaborate with GreenSeam is key to the success of rural Minnesota and agriculture.”

About GreenSeam, LLC

GreenSeam is a grassroots initiative, created by countless businesses and professionals from southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. This initiative exists to build on existing ag business prominence maximizing a growing economic marketplace in order to be the premier ag business epicenter in the United States – the most diverse, balanced and sustainable. It is a place that is agriculturally relevant, responsive and diverse. GreenSeam is a business unit of Greater Mankato Growth, Inc. (GMG). Learn more at

Sam Ziegler, 507.385.6672



Coworking Spaces in Southern Minnesota Join Forces in Passport Program

Members will be able to work in six towns across the state using the plan.

AUSTIN, MN (February 11, 2020) – Six coworking spaces across Southern Minnesota announced the “Greater Minnesota Coworking Passport” today. The program will allow members who join to work at any of the coworking spaces that are part of the program. The program came about in a conversation between Mogwai Collaborative in Mankato and Collider Foundation in Rochester, and was organized by Austin Community Growth Ventures.

“We’ve been wanting to create a collaborative program like this in our region for a while now, and are thrilled to finally announce it!” said Stephanie Braun of Mogwai Collaborative. “I think it’s an important gesture that we coworking directors come together to collaborate like this – to not only offer our entrepreneurs productive and professional working environments in a number of locations, but to also inspire more collaboration between the entrepreneurs themselves, and help jumpstart our region’s innovations in the process.”

Coworking spaces that are already participating in the program include Mogwai Collaborative in Mankato, Launch Coworking Space in Austin, Collider Coworking in Rochester, Pi-Co.Works in Pine Island, Red Wing Ignite in Red Wing, and The Garage Cowork Space in Winona, with more expected to join soon.

“In talking with our members, it really drove home that a large percentage of the workforce in Minnesota isn’t stationary in a single town – they work all across the state,” said Jamie Sundsbak of Collider Foundation, which operates Collider Coworking. 

“Empowering the entrepreneurs in our communities to use all the assets available in Minnesota to make their endeavors easier is why we’re here,” said Sean Williams of Austin Community Growth Ventures, which operates the Launch Coworking Space in Austin. “Joining forces was a no-brainer.”

The program has two tiers of membership. Members can purchase a Punch Card Passport for $99 online or at one of the participating coworking spaces, and can redeem it for up to five visits at any of the member spaces. Additionally, a Monthly Passport for $250 gives unlimited access to participating coworking spaces during their posted “drop-in” hours. The passports can be redeemed all at a single location, or at multiple locations across the state – even in a single day.

“Southern Minnesota is great at collaborating across community boundaries,” said Adam Gettings of Red Wing Ignite. “This passport program is another perfect example of that.”

“We want to eventually create a physical passport book for members to use,” added Sundsbak, “with a prize of some kind for visiting all the participating coworking spaces.”

For more information, and to purchase a passport, visit


Mogwai Collaborative opened July 2nd, 2018 as local business in Mankato, MN. Their mission statement is: “We aim to provide an innovative, thriving and collaborative office space environment to meet the needs of the modern entrepreneur in our region.” Mogwai offers both coworking and private office space. It is located inside the Hubbard Building, which runs on rooftop solar panels and features live plant walls inside, and was 2019’s recipient of the City Center Partnership Sustainability Award.


Austin Community Growth Ventures (ACGV) was established in 2015 by the Development Corporation of Austin’s Austin Community Charitable Fund (ACCF) to promote, encourage, and aid in the creation of an innovative ecosystem that supports education, creates quality jobs, and increases the new application of biotechnology, agricultural technology, and food science. ACGV is a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization, and operates the Launch Coworking Space and Austin Area Angels programs in Austin, MN.



Sean Williams

Ecosystem Builder

Austin Community Growth Ventures

Development Corporation of Austin

(507) 509-9039 office

(310) 936-3210 cell