On Wednesday, April 28, POET Biorefining — Macon was honored to host the leader of the free world, U.S. President Barack Obama.
There’s no doubt that economic woes and the urban migration have hit small communities hard.
But some places have survived better than others. While Ernest Esry asserts that “the rural area needs some help,” he ranks those around Macon, Mo. among the lucky. They’ve managed to avoid the plummeting employment rates other parts of the country have faced and maintain a relatively stable economy.
Steve Burnett leads President Obama and Secretary Vilsack through the tour of POET Biorefining – Macon.
“We’ve done real good with that here,” he said.
Esry is on the board at POET Biorefining – Macon. On April 28, President Barack Obama chose that plant in that town as a model for how rural America will survive. It is an example of how the green revolution can shape a strong future for small communities.
“Here at POET, I believe that you’re doing more than just helping stake America’s claim on our future. You’re staking Macon’s claim on America’s future,” the President said during a speech to POET employees, reporters, board members and government officials.
Obama’s visit was part of his “White House to Main Street Tour,” which took him out of the big cities to talk to families, plant workers, farmers and others. At POET, he took a tour with CEO Jeff Broin, General Manager Steve Burnett and Board President John Eggleston, among others to see firsthand ethanol production today.
ETHANOL, AN ECONOMIC BOON TO RURAL AMERICA
In his time campaigning for President and even before, Obama saw the effects of a slowing economy, he told the audience. For many living in small-town, U.S.A., the American Dream seemed like it was “starting to slip away.”
“But success stories like POET, what you’ve achieved here, prove that that doesn’t have to be the case. And I believe that your company and companies like yours can replicate this success all across the country.”
Obama said there are signs of a recovering economy, even though “the recovery hasn’t reached everybody yet.” But his commitment as President extends beyond simply regaining lost ground. He wants a stronger future with more opportunities.
It means competitive schools, affordable colleges and health care, Wall Street regulation. But most pertinent to the day: “… it means igniting a new clean energy economy that generates good jobs right here in the United States and starts freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon echoed those words after the President’s speech. Ethanol producers have shown young people that there are jobs to be had in areas such as engineering right in their own home towns, he said.
And a strong, productive agriculture industry already working hard for America will foster new growth and industry.
“New products, new technology, that’s what’s really important,” Nixon said. “We think energy independence starts with the agricultural production and science right here in the Show Me State.”
Broin pointed out that future possibilities weren’t limited to the Corn Belt.
“With continued support from Washington for grain-based and cellulosic ethanol, every state in the nation can take part in giving America a secure energy future,” he said.
AMERICA MUST LEAD THE WAY
Our nation’s dependence on foreign oil has been a chronic problem dating back to when President Richard Nixon first started the national discussion, Obama said.
“And as we talked about it, other nations were acting – China, Spain, countries that recognized that the country that leads the clean-energy economy will be the country that leads the 21st-century economy.”
America has ramped up its commitment to clean energy, he said, and last year was the largest investment in clean energy in the nation’s history.
Included in the Recovery Act is $800 million for items such as ethanol fueling infrastructure, biorefinery construction and advanced biofuels research.
He lauded efforts of the Biofuels Working Group, which includes U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Obama reinforced a goal of tripling the nation’s biofuels production in the next 12 years.
“That’s a goal that we can achieve, and it’s being worked on right here at POET, and we’re very proud of that.”
For Grover Gamm, treasurer of POET Biorefining – Macon, that message sent strong signals.
“I think there’s been a lot of questions of where the president’s going with his energy policy,” Gamm said. “I think this created a completely different atmosphere here today, and I hope it spreads nationwide.”
NEW FEEDSTOCK EXPANDS OPPORTUNITIES
As cellulosic ethanol becomes a reality, the benefits of clean, alternative fuel production will spread across the country. Obama mentioned POET’s process for turning corn cobs and other ag waste into ethanol.
“I was talking to your CEO about the incredible progress that’s already being made around cellulosic ethanol and how potentially we can have facilities that are producing cellulosic right here, right next to the existing plant,” he said.
New opportunities for even more efficient production means America can “compete with biofuels from anyplace in the world, using brand new technologies, in part that are being developed right here.”
During the tour, Broin had the opportunity to mention issues that were holding up cellulosic ethanol development. The need for the EPA to allow 15 percent ethanol in fuel, for instance.
“I think the President knows we have a wall today that doesn’t allow ethanol to go further, currently gasoline has a 90 percent mandate,” Broin said. “He is very interested in helping us remove that wall.”
Broin also noted that loan guarantees are crucial in order to secure investment in new technology for cellulosic ethanol.
OBAMA’S PRESENCE A SIGNAL
For many, just having the President visit the plant sent a strong message.
“It’s important as a sign for small towns and rural areas all across the nation,” Nixon said.
Josh Greenwood, Lead Operator for the day shift at the POET plant, said the experience renewed the purpose in what he did every day.
“It makes me feel good about my job,” he said. “He’s showing an interest in the ethanol business.”
Eggleston said its effects extend beyond the ethanol industry.
“I look at this as an opportunity to promote our industry, and not just the ethanol industry, but the biofuels industry as a whole,” Eggleston said.
Broin saw Obama’s visit as confirmation of his long-standing advocacy for renewable fuel production.
“President Obama has shown tremendous support for ethanol in the past, and it was great to hear that he remains steadfast in his support for clean, homegrown, renewable fuel,” Broin said.
Indeed, the President could not have been clearer.
“… there shouldn’t be any doubt that renewable, homegrown fuels are a key part of our strategy for a clean-energy future — a future of new industries, new jobs in towns like Macon, and new independence,” he said.
In early April, POET Biorefining — Macon Administrative Assistant Heather Baker saw the new plant to-do list and cleaning schedule. It looked like an incredible amount of work on a tight timeline, as she dryly noted.
“I was like ‘What, is the President coming?’” she says.
Actually, yes, although Baker didn’t know it yet. The President was coming, and that notification had set off a flurry of activity that would test the team members in coming weeks.
“We knew we had a monumental task ahead of us,” General Manager Steve Burnett says. “This plant is 10 years old. It has had three major expansions. It has run hard all these years and is beginning to show some signs of wear.”
Burnett told his team only that a “VIP” was coming and the plant and grounds had to look its best ever. They had three weeks.
Work included washing every tank and building, spot painting virtually everything, replacing steel liner panels in the grains building, repairing roadways and parking lots, replacing or cleaning up signs, fixing up the landscaping and much, much more.
The POET Biorefining – Macon team stepped up.
“We heard someone big was coming to the plant, and everybody pitched in. There was a lot of painting, car washing, a lot of cleaning,” says Josh Greenwood, Lead Operator for the day shift. “We put in a lot of time, a lot of dedication.”
“On days when I could get away from my desk, I’d go back to help paint,” Baker says. “This past weekend [before the President's visit] they asked everybody to come in and help, so everyone’s been pitching in.”
Burnett described it as the finest example of the company’s “culture at work” he’s ever seen.
“Everyone worked together as a team, without complaining,” Burnett says. “We had our administrative assistants painting doors and pushing squeegees. Managers worked weekends doing any and everything necessary to take at least six years off of the apparent age of this 10-year-old plant.”
Eventually the team was told the identity of the VIP: President Barack Obama was coming for a visit.
“When they told us, when we found out for sure that the President was coming, it was just unreal,” Greenwood says. “Everyone was really happy.
“To choose this location here in Macon, Mo., it’s really big,” he says. “There’s a lot of plants he could have chosen, but he chose our plant.”
Word eventually reached the public, which added more work for team members.
“We had tons of people call — media and citizens alike,” Baker says. Her message was simple: “Basically we have no information, and we can’t give any.”
But that didn’t always stop people from showing up. “We had several that were pretty persistent,” Baker says.
The White House advance team worked with the plant to prepare for Obama’s visit, and occasionally they stepped in to help with the most persistent uninvited guests.
Baker says the POET team and the White House team worked very well together, a point the White House team confirmed repeatedly the day of the big event.
By the time the day arrived, a weary but excited team saw the results of everything they had worked for. President Barack Obama’s tour and speech went off wonderfully, and the POET team had an experience to remember.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing for most of the people here,” Baker says.