Farmers worry ethanol mergers in the future

Ethanol plant
Trucks rumble into the Dakota Ethanol plant near Wentworth, South Dakota. Local investors will vote whether to merge the company with Countryside Renewable Energy based in Des Moines.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

From the kitchen of his southern Minnesota farmhome Gerald Tumbleson watches and deciphers the ups and downs of the agricultural economy.

His biggest concern right now is the hot, dry wind rippling the corn and soybean fields outside his window.

Gerald Tumbleson
Gerald Tumbleson farms near Alpha, Minnesota. He currently chairs the National Corn Growers Association.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Nearly as persistent though as the wind, are his worries about the ethanol industry. Tumbleson regularly makes his view known in Washington through his position as chair of the National Corn Growers Association. He says Minnesota lead the nation in building locally owned ethanol plants.

When asked whether some of those plants might be acquired by corporate ethanol companies, Tumbleson nods his head.

"Oh,very strong possibility of that, very strong possibility of that," says Tumbleson.

"When the price goes down then you don't make any money and then everybody is scratching to make some money and they might sell the plants."

Losing local control worries Tumbleson. He says local ownership means more of the profits stay in the community. Most of the state's 16 ethanol plants are owned by local investors.

Tumbleson says an expected downturn in the ethanol business increases the likelihood of corporate takeovers. He says the downturn could begin later this year. He says ethanol production is rising so fast that supply will exceed demand.

"We could have excess ethanol, what do you do with it?", says Tumbleson. "The prices goes down. When the price goes down then you don't make any money and then everybody is scratching to make some money and they might sell the plants."

Even though ethanol profits are still strong the anticipated downturn has fueled the courtship between Wall Street and farm based plants.

One example is an ethanol operation in South Dakota near the town of Wentworth. Five years ago President Bush visited Dakota Ethanol to promote his energy policies.

"I said when I was running for president I supported ethanol," said Bush. "And I meant it."

The President and Congress collaborated on legislation to expand ethanol production. The federal policies touched off a rush of new plant construction.

Dakota Ethanol chair Brian Woldt says the expected ethanol glut will force producers to make a choice.

David Miles
David Miles is Chief Executive Officer of Countryside Renewable Energy.
Image courtesy of Countryside Renewable Energy

"There's no commodity based industry that I know of that has not gone through consolidation," says Woldt. "So the debate whether it will happen or not is kind of hollow. We kind of are convinced that it will. So in that respect you can either proactively work on it yourself or you can wait till the last minute and take what's offered to you. And so we prefer to do the first."

Woldt says his company intends to merge with an Iowa business, Countryside Renewable Energy. Countryside wants to fold as many farmer built plants as possible into the new business.

Countryside's David Miles says the Des Moines based company is talking with ethanol plant officials in at least eight Midwest states. He says he's in contact with several Minnesota plants, though he won't name them. Miles says under the merger agreement, Dakota Ethanol investors will become part owners of the new company.

"Instead of owning 100 percent of one plant that operates in isolation they own, just as an example, 10 percent of 10 plants that work together," says Miles. "And that just gives them a tremendous amount of scale and flexibility and strength."

Douglas Van Duyn
Douglas Van Duyn is on the Dakota Ethanol board, he farms new Colton, South Dakota.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Not everyone agrees with the South Dakota company's plans to merge.

Douglas Van Duyn is on the Dakota Ethanol board. Van Duyn says right now Dakota Ethanol has very little debt. He says he's worried Countryside will spend a lot of money enticing ethanol companies to merge.

"I don't see the current proposal as having a lot of opportunity in it," says Van Duyn. "In that the debt structure of the new entity would be more precarious than we currently are."

He says most of the nation's 60 or so farmer based ethanol plants are being courted. Some of the largest ethanol companies have said publicly they're looking for companies to acquire.

Like Gerald Tumbleson of the National Corn Growers, Van Duyn says these are pivotal days for locally owned ethanol plants. He says Dakota Ethanol stock holders will vote on whether to go forward with the merger. He says he'll encourage them to vote against the idea.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.