A Strong Voice in Indiana

A closer look at the organizations that speak for Hoosier corn growers in Indiana. Meet two staff members and two farmer board members.
By Jim Dukart | May 13, 2014

As the industry gears up for the 30th anniversary International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, set for June 9 - 12 in Indianapolis, Ethanol Producer Magazine dug into the details of the host state’s biggest corn organizations. We include some fast facts about corn farming and ethanol production in the state and feature two staff members and two farmer directors.

The Indiana Corn Marketing Council and the Indiana Corn Growers Association share both office space and staff in Indianapolis. The IGCA is the state’s clearinghouse for its corn check-off program, which works to expand markets for Indiana corn. The Indiana corn checkoff is administered by ICMC and was first set up in 2001, with updates by the Indiana General Assembly in 2007 and 2012. It helps state corn farmers invest in programs that enhance the value of the product they grow. Half a cent is collected for each bushel of corn that is marketed in Indiana.

ICMC developed a five-year strategic plan and roadmap to advance its vision for Indiana agriculture. The organization is working on market development, education and research in the following areas: ethanol, livestock, grain marketing, production and research, environmental programs, new uses and communication and public affairs.

The organization is made up of 17 voting farmer-directors, responsible for overseeing the effective and efficient investment of corn checkoff funds. Two more voting ex-officio members come from Indiana Farm Bureau and Purdue University. Another seven ex-officio members are representatives from state government, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and Purdue University. In August, an election will be held to fill five open farmer-director seats.

As of December, Indiana ranked fifth nationally in nameplate ethanol production capacity and sixth in operating production. The state has 13 ethanol plants, 11 of which are currently in operation, turning about 300 million bushels of corn into more than 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year.

Ethanol plants in Indiana account for some 600 jobs, with an additional 4.9 jobs created for every job at an ethanol plant. The industry has pumped $1.5 billion in direct capital into the state since 2006, contributing to a $520 million increase in gross state product, along with $47 million in taxes paid into state coffers.

Ag Background
Ken Parrent, biofuels director at the ICMC, has only been on staff since January but comes to the organization with a long background in the ethanol and agricultural commodities industries. Parrent grew up on a farm in Michigan and says he has been involved in agriculture all his life, including five years as commodities manager at a couple of Indiana ethanol plants and 17 years in the grain industry, focused on price and risk management.

“We support Indiana corn producers in whatever way we can,” Parrent says of ICMC, noting that last year the state grew an estimated 1 billion bushels of corn, nearly one-third of which was used to produce ethanol and its coproduct, distillers grains. “My responsibility is on the ethanol side,” he adds. “We do everything from research into new markets and opportunities to keeping farmers up to date on developments within the industry.”

A key initiative has been working on fuel infrastructure issues and encouraging retailers to distribute ethanol-blended fuels. “The last numbers I saw indicate there are over 200 locations that retail E85 in the state of Indiana,” Parrent says, adding that retailers are looking to expand E85 offerings and some are considering E15. “I get the sense that E85, despite all the negative publicity it has had, is catching on. Where it is priced competitively, the consumer has been willing to step up and buy it.”
He also sees promise in the dual challenge automakers face, meeting fuel economy standards and greenhouse gas emissions standards set by the U.S. EPA. “I think they are or will be amenable to looking at whatever fuels can accomplish both tasks,” Parrent says, citing ethanol as a fuel that can.
As to the Big Oil argument that gasoline usage and overall miles driven has been declining, Parrent observes wryly that in an economic downturn such as the past several years, a $50 tank of gasoline became a purchase many consumers started thinking about for perhaps the first time, changing their driving habits to fit the new economy. An economy on the mend, Parrent contends, could well lead to more miles driven and greater fuel consumption. “The mileage outlook has been perking up quite a bit,” he says. “Maybe we have seen the bottom of that trend.”

Racing to Acceptance
Greg Noble is chief operating officer of both the ICMC and ICGA. Noble, who joined both organizations about three and a half years ago, is originally from neighboring Ohio. He spent many years in the agricultural cooperatives sector, followed by a stint at ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Illinois. His role at both organizations is to manage the rollout of all marketing and research programs. One that he has been closely involved with is the American Ethanol partnership with NASCAR.

That affiliation, launched in the 2011 NASCAR season by Growth Energy and the National Corn Growers Association, seeks to broaden consumer awareness of the environmental and performance benefits of using E15. Beginning with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 kick-off race, the NASCAR Green Flag has been branded with American Ethanol, and every lap of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been fueled by Sunoco Green E15.

He estimates that, to date, E15 has fueled some 5 million NASCAR miles, with another million miles to come this year. “It’s been a tremendous success in promoting ethanol in a positive light,” Noble says. “NASCAR has a huge following, and American Ethanol is winning all the races. Recent research shows that fans support E15. NASCAR drivers like it and talk about it.”

Noble is on the activation committee for the state of Indiana regarding the NASCAR partnership, but his ethanol marketing and research interests run beyond the racing oval. ICMC also works to increase the demand for ethanol by promoting the use of check-off funds for retail blender pump placement, and the conversion and promotion of distillers grains in animal nutrition. Noble also has his eye on the use of corn stover for next generation biofuels, and the organizations also support the Indiana livestock industry. “We provide an excellent feedstock for the animals,” he says. “Their success is good for Indiana agriculture as well.”

Ground-level Start
David Howell calls himself the “chairman of the demand side” of the ICMC. A long-time corn farmer from northeastern Indiana near Muncie, Howell tends nearly 8,000 acres, and has been active in the ICMC for 12 or more years. “I was here at the beginning,” Howell says of Indiana’s corn checkoff program, “and I’ve always felt that it is a very important thing for Indiana.” Howell estimates that ICMC’s and the IGCA’s work has added an additional 50 cents to the price Indiana farmers get paid for corn.

Howell has been active in ICMC’s Flex Fuel Pump Grant Program, which offers selected fueling stations up to 50 percent or $20,000 (whichever is less) toward the purchase and installation of ethanol blender pumps, hardware and storage tanks, or for the conversion of existing pumps to handle ethanol blends. It has been successful in converting several Indiana stations, but Howell is well aware that challenges remain. Among them, is independent fueling stations’ lack of familiarity with what he calls the “overly complicated” renewable identification number (RIN) process.

“We’ve had some success, but the big obstacle is still Big Petroleum, which does things like try not to allow us under the canopy [at a fueling station],” Howell notes. “They are still like big bullies on the playground trying to push us around.”

Bullying or not, Howell is optimistic about Indiana ethanol prospects overall. He thinks the industry should focus on export markets, citing both Mexico and China as examples of opportunities for growth. “Any place that has a lot of pollution, and can use a cleaner-burning fuel, we should be very popular there,” Howell says. ICMC, also funds research into new vertical markets for ethanol, he adds, noting in particular research with Purdue and other area Indiana universities to develop grain and or cellulosic ethanol for use as jet fuel for the aviation industry.

Howell is also a big proponent of distillers grains, and serves on the U.S. Grains Council, where he sees strong export demand for grains. “We get a third of the quality of the bushel back in a higher-protein product than the original corn,” Howell says. “Distillers grains are gaining huge acceptance. Huge amounts have been going into China.”

He has an interesting vantage point on exports as his two sons run a corn farming operation in Brazil. He points to the fact that U.S. ethanol is exported to Brazil while Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is imported to the U.S.  “The practice doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is driven by pricing and production support,” he says. “It’s government at its best and at its worst.”

Trips to Capital Hill
Mike Nichols is a farmer director on the ICMC, vice president of the ICGA and serves on the ethanol action team for the National Corn Growers Association. Like Howell, Nichols says he works on the demand side in promoting corn ethanol in Indiana. In all, he has held Indiana corn council committee memberships for 10 years.

Nichols grows corn, soybeans and hay on 1,500 acres near Evansville, about three and a half hours southwest of Indianapolis. He says his location means he focuses more on national than state ethanol issues and finds himself in Washington, D.C., around four times per year, in meetings with legislators, USDA and U.S. DOE officials, among others. He’s been involved in engine testing and fuel economy issues at a national level, as well as greenhouse gas, climate change and carbon tax debates.

Ethanol, deserves a place at the table in discussing future automotive design, Nichols says. “We do see ethanol playing a role in increasing fuel mileage without increasing the body weight or chassis design, and it also burns cleaner.”

Among the things he likes best about the ICMC and IGCA are that the organizations have remained a calm, rational voice among the clamor he sees around renewable fuels debates. “We feel like we have successfully represented ourselves,” Nichols says. “With all the confusion, the ICGA and NCGA have done an excellent job of presenting the facts, not getting emotional and hyper, and being that calming voice of reason.”

Nichols is also bullish on ethanol’s future, both in Indiana and nationwide. “From the reports I am seeing, plants are starting to re-open,” he says “We are seeing a future, and the potential for ethanol as a larger share of the fuel market. There are opportunities both in the U.S. and in export markets. We can expand into other markets.”

Author: Jim Dukart
freelance writer
[email protected]