Ruminations on viral fame and telling ethanol's story

You know you live in a small town when the fact somebody went viral makes front page news.
By Susanne Retka Schill | March 12, 2012

You know you live in a small town when the fact somebody went viral makes front page news. Now retired, Marilyn Hagerty continues to write columns for our local daily, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. Last week, her Eatbeat column about the newest restaurant in town, the Olive Garden, went viral.  Some made snide remarks, others loved it.

Unlike restaurant columns in big-city markets, the Eatbeat isn’t about critiquing the town’s fine cuisine. It’s about describing the experience, the type of food served and the price range to expect. People on the internet were making fun of her reviewing a chain restaurant, but as she said about starting the column over 30 years ago, if she only reviewed top echelon places, the column would have run out of topics in three weeks. Hagerty reviews all the local chains, truck stops and popular cafes. She takes outings around the region to report on small town hot spots. And when she travels, she files her Eatbeat about the common and fancy dining experiences elsewhere.

The local newspaper has been enjoying the reflected fame. And this reader has enjoyed its coverage of both Hagerty’s reaction and the best of the internet repartee and coverage, including the likes of NBC, CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times. Her editors are cooking up a plan to send her to New York City (where this all started) to write about some tony restaurant. I hope it happens. I will enjoy reading what this 85-year-old, plain spoken, veteran journalist writes.

So what does this have to do with ethanol, ask those who know that this is a blog by the editor of an ethanol industry magazine? Admittedly it’s a stretch, but let me tie it to another article I read several weeks ago.

The article contrasted an older value in leadership with today’s. We live in a society that idolizes fame. Until recently, that fame has been in the sports arena or in entertainment, politics or such. There’s a famous quote about a person’s 15 minutes in the spotlight. Today, in the internet age, fame can erupt over silly things and seems to last 15 seconds. Many people court such fame, desperately wanting to be noticed.

It wasn’t always so. The article (which I can no longer find to quote with any accuracy, or tell you who’s thesis I’m repeating), pointed to the values in previous eras. Being a leader didn’t mean being famous, it meant having integrity, and it was important to do something because it was the right thing to do. It was considered crass to call attention to oneself. Rather, the higher value was put on doing the right thing without even being noticed.

Rural areas tend not to be so caught up in the latest trends, and are known to hang on to what is valued. Bragging isn’t looked upon favorably in small towns. And, the more money you make, the more important that is. Well, one can drive a fancy vehicle and build a nice house, but that businessperson will be looked on far more favorably if he or she remains humble and modest. Success in a small town is not to be flaunted. Now, perhaps this is only true in this northwestern far-fringe of the Corn Belt where I live, but I suspect not.

So here’s the ethanol connection. Ethanol has become a success in the heart of rural America, with a lot of farmers and small town folks in the leadership. There is a lot of unspoken pressure to keep quiet about that success, and simply continue working quietly, maintaining good relations in the local community. Thus, getting local leadership involved in advocating for ethanol in a very public way is difficult. The “ethanol bashers” are out there somewhere else and the political debates are held in Washington where we’ve hired lobbyists to represent us.

There is a real power, though, in building grassroots support. After all, the ethanol industry grew out of the grassroots unrest of the 1980s when farmers drove their tractors to protest on the Washington Mall and building a “still on the hill” was an act of protest by farmers angry about lousy corn prices -- may as well burn the stuff in the tractors, since it had so little value. Creating a new market for surplus corn and getting the price of corn higher was the whole point.

Perhaps grassroots efforts work better on the underdog side of the equation, while building the grassroots support to tell the success story with the goal of overwhelming the ethanol bashers is much harder.