Planting with Purpose

A five-acre parcel of underutilized farmland across the highway from Trenton Agri Products will soon become a model pollinator habitat in Nebraska. The project is a result of an idea planted with Renewable Fuels Association board members last year.
By Tom Bryan | July 15, 2020



Ethanol Producer Awards:



A year ago, Charlie Wilson didn’t know a great deal about pollinator habitats. He was aware that bee and butterfly numbers were down, of course—and he realized that was a big problem—but it didn’t seem like there was much one person, or even one company, could do about it.

That changed when Betsy Hickman spoke at a Renewable Fuels Association board meeting last summer. The Field to Market representative told RFA board members about the urgent need for new pollinator habitat, and she encouraged them to be part of the solution. “It sounded great, and it sounded possible,” says Wilson, president of Trenton Agri Products, a 48 MMgy ethanol plant in southwest Nebraska. “I thought, ‘If we can do this, why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we create habitat that’s favorable to bees and butterflies?’ I told Betsy and Jessica Bennett (RFA vice president of government and external affairs) that this was something we wanted to do, and that got the ball rolling.”

Over the winter, Wilson says, TAP collaborated with RFA, Renewable Fuels Nebraska, Nebraska Corn and Pheasants Forever, along with the team from Field to Market, to move the habitat concept forward. “We were all-in,” Wilson says, adding that, with Bennett and RFN Executive Director Troy Bredenkamp spearheading the project, area biologist Mike Winkler was brought in early to help the group identify suitable plants for the habitat and the local ecosystem. “With all of those people working together, we kicked things off this spring.”

The land TAP dedicated to the habitat, a five-acre plot, will serve as a demonstration site, with the aim of becoming a model for other Nebraska ethanol plants to imitate. “It’s a nice way to send a message that the renewable fuels industry is devoted to protecting pollinators, which are critical to the sustainability of agriculture,” Wilson says.       

Tony Leiding, TAP director of operations,  says project participants were given a set of criteria from Pheasants Forever prior to the project’s launch. “They made it clear that they were looking for five to 10 dedicated acres,” he says, “and they wanted those acres to be easily visible to people coming in and out of the plant and driving by.”

As it were, TAP had an ideal parcel of land north of the facility and adjacent to the area’s main corridor, U.S. Highway 34. “The piece of land we chose was ideal, for a couple of reasons,” Leiding says. “It’s visible, so growers delivering grain to the plant will be able to see the habitat and the signage. And the land itself was a rather awkward knob, and now that it’s broken off, the remaining farmland can be utilized more efficiently with straight, continuous rows without that oddly shaped offshoot being part of it.”

Leiding and Wilson credit Pheasants Forever for sending out biologists Winkler and Nebraska State Coordinator Kelsi Wehrman to verify the suitability of the site as a pollinator habitat. After that checked out, the team at TAP began a multi-week process of planning, prepping the land, and ultimately drill-seeding the site. “Our maintenance manager, Joe Lockard, and our production manager, Lance Frazier, headed up the planting with help from the team,” Leiding says.     

According to Wehrman, the pollinator mixture—which will take a couple of seasons to mature—includes 45 wildflowers scheduled to bloom throughout the pollinating season from April to October. She says planting a variety of flower colors, plant structures, and bloom dates is important to attract the insect diversity needed across the landscape. The mixture includes milkweeds critical for the monarch lifecycle, asters, coneflowers, and prairie clovers, among other native plants. Once established, the field will change seasonally, showing purple, red, yellow, white and pink blooms buffered by a variety of grasses.

TAP personnel finished seeding the plot just a week before speaking with Ethanol Producer Magazine in early June. While the employees at TAP are usually too busy for side projects, they found time for the pollinator habitat. “Everyone jumped in and really took ownership of it,” Leiding says. “A lot of our employees are farm guys. They just know what to do.”

The seeding project was a break from day-to-day tasks, and a valuable morale boost for the team during the pandemic. “Over the past few months, there hasn’t been much to get excited about in the ethanol industry, so this was a fun project for everyone, and for all the right reasons,” Leiding says. “I think it also demonstrates that ethanol companies care about the environment and habitat, and it’s a way for us to actually walk the talk.”

Now, with the initial seeding done, TAP will maintain the habitat—mostly just by weeding—and reseed each spring over the next few years. Leiding says it’s likely that biologists will analyze the habitat once or twice a year, and offer ongoing guidance to TAP. Wilson says the ethanol plant is obligated to maintain the habitat for three to five years, but intends to keep it permanently. “Once it’s established, why not let it just exist in perpetuity?” he says.
Ultimately, the goal for the project is to get 1,000 acres of pollinator habitat planted across Nebraska, starting with sample plots at nine other ethanol plants in the state. Wehrman says Pheasants Forever is excited about the possibility of farmers enhancing small areas of their land to benefit pollinators. She says doing so will also benefit grassland songbirds, pheasants, quail and other wildlife.

Wilson believes it will happen. “I think growers will see these habitats at ethanol plants and be inspired to dedicate some of their land to the same purpose,” he says. “I can’t think of a better way for our industry to show that it prioritizes biodiversity alongside our commitment to clean, green renewable fuels.” 

Trenton Agri Products was nominated for this award by Jacqueline Pohlman of the Renewable Fuels Association.