100 down, and a lesson from grain washing

Writing a weekly blog goes with the job of editing Ethanol Producer Magazine, and this week marks my 100th blog.
By Susanne Retka Schill | February 06, 2012

Writing a weekly blog goes with the job of editing Ethanol Producer Magazine, and this week marks my 100th blog. Being more informal than news or feature stories, blogs are sort of fun. We can break more of the writing “rules,” (such as using the full name of a company on first reference, including the Inc. or LLC, etc.). We can personalize the blog as much as we like – and thus, I’ve written about my husband, the farm and past lives on occasion, usually finding an ethanol connection. Of course, there are those weeks when every word comes with a struggle and more get deleted than appear in the blog.

I admire bloggers who can consistently be witty, creative and/or wise. Me, I just aspire to consistently come up with a blog. Mostly, I keep my eyes open every week for something important, that I’d like to draw attention to, or something interesting, or sometimes just quirky.

It seems as though I am becoming more successful at finding topics that resonate with readers, although I can never predict which blogs will elicit responses. Within minutes of posting a recent blog on women in biofuels, for instance, a couple of the individuals named wrote thanking me for the mention (and requested I make a few changes to make it more accurate.) Within in hours, another individual suggested someone ought to take a look at people of color in the industry (me thinks that would be even tougher than finding women working in atypical roles).

Many of my blogs and articles by my colleagues, Kris and Holly, attract ethanol critics who will ask probing questions or state an alternative point of view, which is fine. We are somewhat perplexed, though, when some don’t seem to understand that we write for an ethanol industry publication, and thus, by definition, will take an industry point of view. We once got reamed out about a story on a newly released report because it didn’t give all points of view on the issue. It was a 300-word news brief, for heaven’s sake. The purpose of those sorts of stories is to briefly summarize new information, and when appropriate, include a link so people can read the full thing.  We often do articles that delve into the issues – but they are generally longer pieces written for the print magazine that get posted online once we’ve completed production on the print version.

It also seems there are blog commentators who want to emulate vitriolic talk show hosts and cultivate a style of punchy, provocative, often nasty, comments. They occasionally turn to, but they aren’t fed by responses, and thus, don’t make it a habit. More often, the comments we receive on are short, to the point, and worth reading -- good questions asked, good additional information offered. We do have rules, though, and we delete comments that are blatant advertising or that are defamatory or obscene. We get far more of the advertising sort than of the others.

While I’m on a bit of rant about annoyances, I’ll mention another that occurred just this past week. A media outlet (not in the biofuels sector, thankfully) “borrowed” a story from our website. They added one paragraph, acknowledged Ethanol Producer at one spot in the story, but essentially plagiarized the piece – the quotes, the information, the headline, were all ours. It’s unethical, and frankly, not wise. More than once we’ve followed up with a story first spotted from a local news outlet and discover the reporter got it wrong. When we call the companies involved they are relieved to be able to set the record straight. Of course, the other challenge is when we can’t find an official in the company at question who will talk. The local news reporter is giving the news from the most recent council meeting, perhaps. (Anybody who’s sat in on those sorts of meetings can perhaps understand how a reporter could get a story wrong. Information presented at public meetings is sometimes quite confusing.)  Some times, we call those public officials to get the best details we can get.

Sometimes the mistake is obvious and it’s clear that the reporter doing the story was unfamiliar with the ethanol industry. The one we see most often, of course, relates to farm prices. The reporters don’t even realize they’ve telegraphed their total ignorance when they seriously suggest that a solution would be for farmers to simply set their prices higher for their grain or livestock.

My favorite clueless reporter story, though, happened in my backyard. The original wood crib house of a nearby country elevator went down in a spectacular fire. The reporter from the regional daily newspaper reported the fire apparently started in the area where they washed the grain.

That set me back for a bit. Where in the world did that come from? Then I broke out in laughter. Talk about leaping to false conclusions. To the reporter it was obvious, if the fire started in the grain dryer, they must have been washing the grain, too.  

I still can’t believe that story made it past the editors of a daily newspaper published in the heart of farming country. But it nicely demonstrates just how disconnected we are getting from agriculture. If you think about it, we are a society with a lot of opinionated people who love to make statements as though they were experts on the subject when they actually know little. So little, in fact, that they don’t even know they just made a statement demonstrating their total ignorance.   

Oh. And for those reading this blog who don’t know much about grain: While grain gets cleaned, it doesn’t get washed. Grain cleaning uses sieves or rotary drums to separate the whole, sound kernels from weed seeds and other foreign material. And grain drying means the grain is heated slightly to dry out the kernels to the optimal moisture content for storage. Many farmers don’t use heat any more, preferring to aerate their bins instead, using fans to force air through the bin of grain to dry the grain slowly and naturally. Grain elevators, though, do generally use high-speed, natural gas dryers whenever moisture levels are too high. There’s only two or three percentage points between grain that will keep for weeks or months and grain that will be susceptible to mold and spoiling.