Dispelling early fears, the location of POET’s Laddonia, Missouri biorefinery has turned out to be an unexpected blessing.
The real estate agent’s mantra is “Location, Location, Location.”
That’s truer in ethanol plant siting than it is in home buying, and in 1999 when David Vogt and a group of other farmers started thinking about an ethanol plant near Laddonia, Mo., that issue was top of mind. They were pretty sure they were getting into a good industry, but would their location – in Missouri’s relatively small neck of the Corn Belt with many acres devoted to milo – be able to sustain the business?
As it turned out, they needn’t have worried.
“Our location actually wound up being our number one asset,” says Vogt, a Laddonia native and chairman of the POET Laddonia board. “We were able to get enough corn and with the great majority of the country’s ethanol plants to the north of us, we wound up with an unbelievable marketing opportunity for DDGS for poultry, cattle, and hogs in southwest Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And by Missouri being a rural state with two major metropolitan areas, we were also closer to the ethanol markets.”
Another early hurdle was financing. While there was no shortage of interested investors, the process took a few years, and the group wound up in the “gold rush” to build ethanol plants in the mid-2000s.
“Every year, our plant had to grow on paper to be competitive,” Vogt says. “We started out planning for a 15 million gallon plant and eventually wound up with a 45 million gallon plant to achieve the economies of scale needed to compete in the expanding marketplace. We found ourselves chasing a pile of equity requirements that just kept getting faster and bigger.”
The group’s efforts finally paid off when POET’s Macon, Mo. plant 70 miles to the northwest joined them.
In the fall of 2004, Macon Board President John Eggleston, who had been instrumental in the founding of that plant, presented to his co-op the idea of purchasing 25 percent of the Laddonia group’s equity, with POET as a managing partner. The result has been a very successful partnership between East Central Ag Products (Laddonia co-op), Northeast Missouri Grain (Macon co-op) and POET. A fourth entity, Corn Energy, is also a minor but valued partner.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about our partnership,” Vogt says.
The Laddonia plant is Missouri’s largest and is 75 percent locally owned. Since it began grinding corn in September of 2006, it’s been an excellent producer and has set new production records for five consecutive years since. It was one of the first to have POET’s BPX™ (fermentation without cooking) process technology as original equipment. A new fermenter was added in 2009, which boosted ethanol production to its current 60 million gallons per year. In 2011, Total Water Recovery™ and Corn Oil Separation were added.
In 2008, the plant earned an EPA Energy Star CHP award for its Combined Heat and Power system, which provides electricity and thermal energy from the same fuel source. This environmentally-friendly system uses every BTU of gas twice, providing two-thirds of the steam needs of the plant while also generating electricity for the local power grid.
Many farmers who previously grew milo have switched to corn, and while getting enough corn has not been a problem, the plant does have a larger draw area than most with a radius of about 60 miles. Area farmers now have a convenient and competitive local alternative to hauling their corn to river terminals as far away as St. Louis or Quincy, Ill.
“It sure beats driving a truck through downtown St. Louis traffic,” Vogt says. “It’s been wonderful.”
The plant strives to be a good neighbor, taking an active role in the community. During the summer, it supports 4-H in a number of surrounding county fairs.
Going forward, Laddonia’s General Manager Steve Murphy feels that the combination of his plant’s technology, team’s great work ethic, and its location on the edge of the Corn Belt bodes well for its future.
“Because Missouri’s a smaller corn-producing state with a large population, we wind up being a net importer of ethanol,” he says. “Someday we hope to produce cellulosic ethanol here, and I’m looking forward to doing our part to help fill that gap.”
Joe Bruch, Operations Manager
Like many Americans, Joe Bruch worked hard to lay the foundations for his success. After graduating with honors from the University of Missouri in 1976, he went to work for an area chemical plant, starting at the bottom and working his way well up into management over a 29 year period.
But also like many Americans, Bruch found himself out of a job when his company reorganized in 2005. After dusting himself off, Bruch heard about a groundbreaking for an ethanol plant and decided to go, where he met POET CEO Jeff Broin and Vice President Larry Ward. Soon after, he met the new GM and was hired as Operations Manager for the Laddonia biorefinery. Six years later he’s still glad he attended that groundbreaking.
“POET’s been an awesome opportunity,” he says. “The timing was almost perfect, and many of the principles I’d learned in the chemical industry were very transferable. I’m very grateful to be here.”
There are many things Bruch likes about his job, but two top his list.
“The technology is constantly changing, and I really enjoy being on the cutting edge,” says Bruch, who farms, teaches karate, teaches and competes with firearms and is a 4-H leader off the job. “And I love coming in every day and working with a team of people who are just as motivated as I am to do a good job.”
Andrea Carpenter, Quality Manager
Andrea Carpenter is now in her 11th year of working for POET, which makes her a relative old-timer in the still-young ethanol industry. As the Quality Manager at POET’s Laddonia plant, Carpenter is responsible for overseeing the quality of just about everything that comes into or leaves the plant. It’s a big job, but one she thoroughly enjoys.
“It’s very fulfilling,” says Carpenter, who keeps busy off the job with her husband, three children and church activities. “I also really enjoy the good personal relationships the various team members have with each other and the family atmosphere.”
Carpenter was originally hired at POET’s Macon plant, but like most people working in the industry today, she had no prior experience with ethanol.
“I’d received my degree from Hannibal-LaGrange University with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry,” says Carpenter. “It just seemed to fit.”
She started as a Macon lab assistant when that plant opened, and two promotions later she had the opportunity to transfer to Laddonia as the Quality Manager. In addition to enjoying working with her fellow team members, Carpenter also appreciates the big picture of ethanol.
“Things here change every day, and I like to see changes that will advance the ethanol industry and help people understand the importance of reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” she says. “I also want people to really understand what we’re doing here, rather than the myths they often hear.”