Up Front, Near the Action … Again

Sen. John “Jack” Kibbie, D-Iowa, always manages to find himself in the middle of everything, whether it’s working to bring cellulosic ethanol to his home county, commanding tanks in Korea or sharing a ballot with John F. Kennedy.
By Tim Portz | October 05, 2012


Jack Kibbie, president of the Iowa Senate, has represented the citizens of north central Iowa in various capacities over the past six decades. First elected to public office in 1960, the Emmetsburg area farmer and legislator took a hiatus from public service only to raise his two sons. He shares his observations of the growth and future of the ethanol industry, his time in uniform and the beginnings of his political career.

The next generation of ethanol production coming to your town as Project Liberty is currently under construction in Emmetsburg. Why do you think Poet LLC chose Emmetsburg as the home for its first cellulosic ethanol facility?

Well, that’s hard to say. Some would say I had something to do with that. Poet has six plants in Iowa. At the time they were choosing the site for their plant, Gov. (Chester “Chet”) Culver had the Iowa Power Fund, which was $100 million over four years, for grants and low-interest loans for energy research. Poet got the largest award, which was close to $15 million. And of course, in our part of the state, I don’t think there has ever been a crop failure here. It’s a good area.
They expect to get stover from within 30 miles of the Emmetsburg plant and to collect about 85,000 tons this fall, at about a ton to the acre. That’s only about 20 to 25 percent of the stover that is there. You drive by a field that has already been baled and picked up and you hardly know that they’ve taken off any stover. As thick as we plant corn nowadays, we’ve got to get rid of some of this stover anyway. So it’s time to look at other ways to produce ethanol and in Iowa, if you are going to look at biomass, corn stover is what is available.

How important is ethanol to the agricultural economy in your district?

To me, ethanol and the related businesses have really made Iowa and Iowa’s economy what they are today. We built 41 ethanol plants in Iowa, refineries, I call them, and we’re a net fuel exporter. We used to ship all of our corn down the Mississippi River and now most of it is processed locally. The jobs that has created, whether that is in the trucking industry or rail, it’s been a tremendous asset for the state of Iowa. It’s an important part of our economy and I think most people realize that. Coproducts like distillers grains are being shipped all over the world.

Your sons now operate your farm. How did the crops turn out?

There’s more crop there than we anticipated with this drought. They are combining beans now and they are running between 40 and 50 bushels per acre. On our corn, we’re hoping to average between 160 and 170 bushels per acre.

Do you and your sons plan to deliver corn stover to the facility once the plant is operational?

They are baling stover right now, this morning. They’ve got a contract with Poet to deliver those bales. So the community is buzzing with balers, because there is a lot of demand for stover bales.

How important has acting as a representative for your constituents been to you?

I feel very good about being able to work with my colleagues in both parties and what I’ve done in the renewable fuel area, both biodiesel and ethanol. But also important is work since 2006 on legislation to help veterans and their families. Iowa has probably passed more bills for veterans than any other state and we’ve been recognized for that nationally. It’s been very rewarding to me and the results are noticeable.

What has been the most rewarding about serving as president of the Iowa Senate?

After the 2004 election we had a 25-25 tie in the Iowa Senate so we had two presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, both picked by their peers. I was picked by the Democrats and we changed off. One week I would be president and one week the Republican would be president. My job was working with members of both parties, especially when presiding over the Senate. I tried to make rulings in which the minority party got a fair shake and most people gave me credit for that.

People talk quite a bit about how partisan politics has become. You’ve been in and around politics in six different decades. Is there truth in that statement or have politics always been partisan?

I think it’s true, it’s getting worse, and it’s too bad. Some of these elections get pretty negative. You can hardly expect people to do what they do in November and come to work in January and hold hands. We ought to work together more. Legislation, whether it’s state or federal, it’s a compromise. That’s getting tougher to do. Both parties say we are going to do more of that, but it’s not happening.

Senator, when this issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine goes to press, Veteran’s Day will be just around the corner. Thank you for your service to our country.

Thank you. I was drafted in October of 1951 and served in Korea from June of ’52 to June of ’53 and when I got there the 38th parallel was already established. I was on the front line most of the time that I was there. I was on Heartbreak Ridge from October of ’52 until I came home in June of ’53 in a tank for the 45th division. Our main goal up there was to protect infantry that went out on patrol every night.

Can you talk a little bit about how your life as an elected official started? I understand the first ballot you appeared on also featured John F. Kennedy for president.

When I came home from the military in July of 1953, for the ’54 election my mother was somewhat active in the Iowa Democratic Party as a precinct person in Palo Alto County. She asked me to get some names filled out on nomination papers. A few months later she came home from a meeting and said we had a new county chairman. I said, “Who’s that?” and she said, “You.” So, that’s how I got started. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, it was my job to get people to run for office and we couldn’t find anybody to run for state representative so I put my name on the ballot. When I found someone I [thought I] would take my name off. Well, that didn’t happen and I got elected. It wasn’t a good year for Democrats that year in most places, especially in the Midwest. Iowa has 99 counties and Kennedy only carried five. One of those was our county.