Award of Excellence Recipient Doug Tiffany Knows 'Rural Values'

The prolific career of Doug Tiffany, recipient of the 2020 Award of Excellence, is indelibly linked to his connections to agriculture and farmland. Ethanol and its coproducts have been a frequent point of focus for the U of M production economist.
By Tom Bryan | October 04, 2020

Doug Tiffany sees ethanol differently than some people. He studies it from peripheral positions—not as an insider—and through the candid lenses of economics, science and technology. He views the ethanol industry not just for what it is, but what incremental technology improvement, and intelligent change, might make it. And, though he cares deeply about ethanol, especially the people and communities it supports, Tiffany’s decades-long interest in biofuels is rooted in his devotion to land and resource optimization. The efficient, profitable production of biofuels, he says, raises the value of farmland—and that, to Tiffany, hits home.

Raised on a farm outside of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, a town nestled around the lake of its namesake 100 miles west of the Twin Cities, Tiffany developed an early appreciation of nature, agriculture and the variable worth of land supporting almost everything around him. His early upbringing was the standard stuff of farm kids—he pitched in, played, performed chores and joined 4H. While seemingly ordinary, those early life experiences, coupled with Tiffany’s aptitude for ag-based studies—economics, biology, animal science, agronomy—planted a seed in him that would, in due time, become his life’s work.

 It wouldn’t happen overnight. The career path of the 2020 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo’s Award of Excellence recipient was relatively circuitous, and years before his career as a production economist at the University of Minnesota began, he would try his hand at other occupations: banking, land appraisal and farming. None were his calling, but neither was any experience wasted on Tiffany. A consummate student of life, he has always enjoyed learning about the world around him. At the age of 17, Tiffany left high school for a semester as a foreign-exchange student in Malaysia, where he lived with a Chinese family in a small village that had no cars or trucks and could only be reached by boat. The experience broadened Tiffany’s worldview and, perhaps, sparked his latent interest in the patterns of industry and resource utilization. “It was an important event in my life,” he says. “It was my first real experience seeing how people lived in other countries, how they worked and what supported their economy.”

Learning ‘Values’  
Tiffany returned from Malaysia a more mature and poised young man. He finished high school and enrolled in the University of Minnesota, completing his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics. After college, he began training as a farm banker but changed course when the economy “hit the skids” in the mid-1970s. “I decided to go back and get my master’s degree,” he says. “I doubled down on what I had already studied—more science, ag science and the accompanying economics courses. Specifically, I studied land economics, and that was really the start of my professional interest in that field.”

In 1977, Tiffany completed his master’s degree in agricultural economics and took a job as a land economist with the Minnesota Department of Revenue. His life as a university faculty member was still 17 years off, but the practical launch of a 40-year career focused on the economics of land, farming, precision ag and bioenergy had begun. The job gave Tiffany valuable experiences he’d draw upon later in his career as a production economist analyzing ag-based industries: biofuels, biomass power, wind energy economics, production of ammonia fertilizer from wind power, and all manner of rural enterprises.  

Tiffany enjoyed working for the state and stayed with it for seven years, evaluating land values across Minnesota. “I had a number of responsibilities, but the one constant was that I was always working around ag resources and focused on understanding those values,” he says. “I saw so many examples of value-added activities that would later be mirrored by ethanol production. When something comes along and supports the use of a crop like that, you see how it positively affects the land base. And when processing technologies improve, demand on the resources also change. I saw that firsthand across the landscape of the state.”

After departing from the Minnesota Department of Revenue in the mid-’80s, Tiffany returned to farming and appraisal work—his fallback professions—before resuming his career as a land economist with Farm Credit Bank of St. Paul, where he provided guidance and training for appraisers in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan. “Again, it was an experience that deepened my understanding of how the value of land is affected not only by the crops that it can produce, but what can be done with those crops after they leave the farm.”

Tiffany would carry those lessons with him when he landed a position as a research fellow with his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, in 1994. At the U of M, Tiffany discovered his passion for research at the intersection of industry and academia. Within the Department of Applied Economics—where he resided for many years before moving to the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering—Tiffany participated in an array of techno-economic and value-added ag analyses, working on projects related to ethanol, biodiesel, biomass, precision ag, phosphorous abatement, livestock, grain shipping patterns, farm-based power, alternative energy and more. He lectured, traveled and taught courses on land appraisal, while also developing land and real estate methodologies, tools and banking products.

Biofuels Beckoning    
In the early 2000s, with biofuels production growing swiftly, Tiffany’s work frequently focused on ethanol and biodiesel. His reputation as a pragmatic, solutions-oriented economist was established in the ethanol industry as his work, on numerous occasions, focused on enhancing the profitability of dry-grind ethanol plants and utilizing biomass as a source of process energy. A spreadsheet model that he created and placed online in 2003 became very popular as farmers considered investments in ethanol plants across the Corn Belt.

Tiffany took on notable, sometimes unconventional, concepts related to improving biofuels economics. One high-profile project, sponsored by Xcel Energy and the Agricultural Experiment Station at U of M, developed technical data and economic tools to guide the decisions of ethanol plants considering biomass power. Tiffany and his colleagues examined the potential for ethanol producers to use a combination of corn stover and distillers grains as an energy feedstock for combined heat and power (CHP). “Ethanol plants were facing some high costs for natural gas, and we thought it was time to roll up our sleeves and look for solutions,” he says. “Biomass appeared to be a good option. If we could economically collect that corn residue and use some of the DDGS—not all of it—it could fuel the plant and make them completely independent of any other power source. They wouldn’t have needed any gas or electricity.”  

Like other concepts Tiffany would investigate, biomass CHP was unquestionably compelling, but perhaps ahead of its time. Today, interest in CHP is experiencing a resurgence, as producers seek to lower their carbon intensity ratings. Tiffany says he has never been dissuaded by the fact that novel production concepts can take years or decades to gain acceptance. “It can be frustrating, but a lot of things are a matter of timing,” he says. That’s one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate. I think the whole CHP opportunity is still largely in front of the ethanol industry. Good ideas are left at the alter sometimes simply because they are too early.”    

As Tiffany and his university collaborators promoted the biomass CHP concept throughout the ethanol industry, natural gas prices sank amid the fracking revolution, but that didn’t make the plan obsolete. “At that point we said, ‘What if ethanol plants could actually become peaking plants for the power companies and could, therefore, supply energy to the grid while producing waste heat for the ethanol process—cooking, mash and distillation,’” Tiffany says, explaining that the team envisioned some ethanol plants running on CHP and providing dispatchable reserve power to back up wind farms.
And while the CHP ideas Tiffany proffered all those years ago may not have become commonplace in the U.S., he says the work has had incredible international reach. “Even today, there are people reading our work,” he says. “I get notices every week that the research is being cited, especially by people in developing countries where they are pursuing combined heat and power. They’re following the methodology and looking for ways to utilize heat from power production, whether it’s running an industrial process or heating homes. That’s rewarding to see.”               

Tiffany’s research has also focused on ethanol coproducts. About five years ago, Tiffany joined a research project, led by U of M Associate Professor Bo Hu, that modeled the extraction of phytate from distillers grains in order to make DDGS more digestible to animals, thereby leading to less phosphorous leaching in the environment. “It’s another use for a product that’s right at our fingertips, and we could actually produce a lot of it from corn ethanol plants here, instead of extracting phytate from rice hulls in China and Japan,” he says. “But again, it’s an idea that may sit on the shelf until the right combination of things come along. I’ve really learned to be patient.”      

Deserving Recognition
Tiffany attributes much of his success to the support of his university colleagues, people like Vern Eidman (retired, professor emeritus, U of M), Vance Morey (retired, U of M) and numerous other university colleagues, grad students and post-doctoral fellows. “I have been fortunate to have so many wonderful, talented people to collaborate with,” he says, reflecting on numerous co-authored papers related to biofuels and biomass energy, some of which received professional acclaim. Tiffany, for example, was part of a team that won outstanding paper at the Conference of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineers in 2010, and he received the Green Award the same year for the creation of the Alternative Vehicle Decision Tool, designed to help consumers understand the costs of ownership and operation of various types of cars and trucks: electric, extended-range electric and conventional gas vehicles.

But beyond the accolades, Tiffany says, he is most appreciative of the variety of topics he has been able to work on. “I think too many faculty today get pigeon-holed into writing papers on the same topics for two decades of their life,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to have worked in so many different areas—biofuels, wind energy, bioenergy integration with the power grid, biodiesel use in underground mines, economics of alternative vehicles, ammonia production from wind power and water—there has just been so much variety, and I am pleased with that. Variety has been the spice of life for me in terms of my research.”

Tiffany says his current role within the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering is a “great fit” because it allows him to apply his production economics experience to pre-commercial concepts often being cultivated by those with scientific or engineering backgrounds. Being a part of the science and economics of new and changing technology is something he enjoys. “I appreciate the science aspect of it, probably more than most economists,” he says. “In a lot of cases, the people I work with are looking at patents or pushing a technology forward when I come into the picture. I enjoy the process of helping them evaluate the economics of their ideas, and then finding out if their concept will make the grade and be commercial someday.”   

Sharing Knowledge  
While Tiffany has, for over 25 years, been a university-employed production economist working outside of the biofuels sector on the boundary of academia and industry, he appreciates the people he’s met and worked with in ethanol. “I’ve really enjoyed visiting with the folks at the plants, going back to the days when I would visit frequently with the people over at Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. in Benson, Minnesota,” he says. “Kelly Davis, Andy Zurn, Bill Lee—they were all very patient helping me understand the ethanol process so I could do my work. Sometimes it was just a couple quick questions—maybe five minutes—but it meant a lot to me.”

Tiffany says the things that impress him most about the ethanol industry, and pull him to it often, are “the great people” and “the pace of innovation.” He says that nowhere is that more noticeable than at the annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo. “Just amazing, the number of new things you would see for the first time at that show—whether it was corn oil extraction or corn fiber-to-ethanol technology,” he says. “Things have happened very fast in ethanol, and it’s been exciting to watch.”  
Like millions of Americans, Tiffany is currently working from home. “We all just need to stay safe right now, so we’re finding new ways to innovate, communicate and make things happen,” he says. “It can be a little isolating at times—not being able to bump into a colleague in the hallway and ask them a question—but that’s our reality for a while.”    

University employees aren’t traveling during the pandemic, but Tiffany says he is thankful for the many rewarding opportunities he has had over the years to travel internationally, present at conferences, participate on boards and testify in front of government committees. For example, he has provided expert testimony to Minnesota state legislative committees on first- and second-generation biofuels; and he served as a governor appointee on Minnesota's Nextgen Board, which provided recommendations and grant funding aimed at energy independence and sustainable natural resource utilization.

Tiffany is not part of the U of M’s teaching faculty, but rather its research faculty—an important distinction—but opportunities to lecture and present, nonetheless, give him joy. Many years ago, he had an opportunity to speak to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. It was a genuine honor, he says. “They were great listeners, and it was one of the happiest days of my career. When I visited both academies, I went to their museums and saw lots of examples of how R&D investments and technology advances changed warfare. We are witness to similar dramatic transformations in agriculture and the processing of agricultural products.”

Author: Tom Bryan
Ethanol Producer Magazine
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tbryan@bbiinternational.com