It’s been 35 years since I was an undergraduate at South Dakota State University in Brookings. I wrote about the 1978 and tractorcades to Washington, D.C., for The Collegian, the SDSU student newspaper. I was an agricultural journalist, and Editor Kevin Woster from the famed Woster journalism family in South Dakota was my boss. He created a position called “Earth Editor” for me.
About this time, Paul Middaugh was an SDSU professor who was helping farmers learn about producing on-farm ethanol from their corn that was worth about $1.30 per bushel at the time. Middaugh was a Boy Scout leader, and I was familiar with one of his older sons. In 1979 I started my first job at the Worthington Daily Globe. Farmers were in trouble and ethanol was one of their potential saviors. I covered the first wet milling plant at Marshall, Minn., and the Minnesota effort to get subsidize ethanol production and mandate its use at 10 percent in regular gasoline. “Gasahol,” they called it.
In 1983, I moved to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The only ethanol in our part of the country at the time was the Dawn Enterprises plant at Walhalla, N.D., which originally was to make the stuff from barley, before they started shipping corn up there. There was the Al-Chem Ltd. plant at Grafton, N.D., eventually owned and later shut down by Harold Newman from Jamestown, N.D.
Meanwhile, in 1983, a youngster named Jeff Broin was growing up on a farm south of Minneapolis where his father dabbled in on-farm ethanol plants. In 1987, at age 22, Broinand his family had purchased a bankrupt ethanol plant at Scotland, S.D. Fast-forward 25 years. Broin has gone on to build a huge ethanol empire that’s touched farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and several other states. Broin has done it all — envisioning, building, marketing, innovating, and reinventing an industry that has made a huge impact on agriculture in this region. After all of these years, I had never met Mr. Broin until Jan. 28, when I sat down with him at his impressive Poet LLC headquarters in Sioux Falls. It’s a sprawling affair that includes research facilities. As we took a “walk down Memory Lane,” as Broin put it, we realized we knew all of the same characters — guys like Middaugh and former legislator and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols, one of the key movers of Minnesota’s ethanol mandate. It occurred to me that this fellow who has hired a new CEO for Poet, LLC, was one of the pioneers in the flesh — a builder of an industry and still a young man. Broin noted that most of the players in the business were 20 years older than he, which puts them in their 70s or better. Broin already has done more in his young life than anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of people. He’s been a co-investor for the plants he’s helped build, so he’s had the same skin in the game as many of his farmer-investors. He’s avoided some of the pitfalls that have impacted some of his competitors and rivals. He could take his money and buy an island somewhere, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem to be in the picture. I am interested in motivations.If you look in the company literature, Broin hints at religious motivations and caring for his community that I find is a motivator for some of this region’s most effective leaders. You don’t have to be an ethanol believer to respect that. I surely do. Broin’s story was in the March 2, 2015, issue of Agweek magazine, and on Agweek TV. See them at agweek.com