Farm roots run deep for POET team members
The story of POET started in the late 1980s on a farm near Wanamingo, Minnesota, when the Broin family saw good cropland going to waste and thought there must be a better way. In the coming decades, the company — and the entire bioethanol industry — would grow, motivated by that same farmer’s spirit.
Farmers don’t just want to farm. They need to farm. It’s in their genes. And anything they can grow, we can find a way to use to better our world.
At POET today, that same spirit is alive not only in CEO Jeff Broin but also in many of the people who work at its bioprocessing facilities, headquarters, and other business units. Although they have built their careers in the bioethanol industry, they just can’t resist working the land as well.
‘I like to see things grow’
Russ Hazel, Commodity Manager at POET Bioprocessing – Hudson, South Dakota, has been with the plant for almost 20 years. His roots in the community are even deeper.
“I’ve never lived in another house since I was five years old,” he said. “I’ve always been in the same place. I went to school in Hudson, graduated from Hudson, farmed for a few years in Hudson until I wanted something more stable, started an elevator for 11 years, and then started at the bioethanol plant.”
That connection to the community and his relationships with customers are what Hazel values most about the life he’s built in Hudson.
“You get to be part of their life, share in their successes, watch their kids graduate, get married, and watch your customers becoming grandparents — one of the best things I get to do,” he said. “I’m lucky because all of my kids and grandkids live within 10 miles of here.”
Farming is also an important part of that connection for Hazel. He and his brother still grow corn and soybeans on their family farm near the POET facility.
Working at POET and working on the farm is an exercise in time management, but for Hazel, now in his 60s, the payoff is worth it.
“I enjoy the planting and spraying and looking at the crop when it’s maturing and coming up,” he said. “I like to see things grow. I like to figure out what I could have done better to make it better for next year.”
That perspective is important in relating to his customers.
“How can I help them be successful if I don’t understand their business?” he said. “If they’re not successful, then I’m not. You can’t have customers work with you for 30 years without trust being in there at some place.”
‘Loving it ever since’
Shane Breheny, Quality Manager at POET Bioprocessing – Menlo, Iowa, is the fourth generation to work his family’s farm in southwest Iowa, just 10 miles south of the facility.
For him, the POET plant was always a part of farm life, both for selling corn and buying feed.
“When my family was farming corn, we'd bring some corn up here, buy feed from the bioethanol plant, buy the modified and wet cake,” he said.
After finishing college with a degree in biology, Breheny saw that a lab tech position had opened up at the plant. That was a little over a year ago, and he’s been “loving it ever since.”
The career he is building at POET is only part of his working life. His family’s farm has transitioned away from row-crop farming and is now focused on livestock. When he’s not at POET, Breheny spends weekends and free hours at the family farm. It’s something he would never want to give up.
“I love calving season, getting to see the little calves in the spring and help them with that,” he said. “It's a lot of work, but I feel like it's rewarding. I feel like I'm giving back to my family as well as supporting the local community and feeding the world.”
“It’s mostly just being outside in the fresh air. Sometimes it smells like manure,” he chuckles, “but it’s still fresh in my eyes, I guess.”
‘True work that means something’
Brent Pekelder, Grain Merchandiser at POET Bioprocessing – Ashton, Iowa, has been with POET since 2017, and he’s been farming his whole life.
Pekelder and his father farm together on a combination of family land and rented acres near Sheldon, Iowa. He lives in the home his father grew up in, purchasing it after his grandparents retired and moved to town.
Pekelder farms corn and soybeans, and he and his father employ a number of sustainable practices such as no-till and strip-till. Farming is an essential part of who he is.
“I just grew up with it and kind of learned to love and appreciate the land for what it provides,” he said. “Even the ups and downs. It provides a grounding when it comes to doing true work that means something.”
The connection to agriculture helps him in his career. Being able to relate to farmers and go through things with them is important for maintaining strong relationships.
“I think I came naturally to understanding where most of the farmers come from, understanding their problems, understanding their objectives and why those would be important to them,” he said.
And it works both ways. Pekelder said his work at POET also inspires his work on
“Being attached to a company that has a vision forward and has a vision for better days has kind of helped steer my own vision for my farm,” he said. “When things do get tough, you know that you put in a little work, and things are going to be better eventually.”
Fulfilling a purpose
For all three, working on the farm and working in the bioethanol industry means being a part of something bigger. These industries work in tandem to support the world today and our vision for a better future.
“If it wasn’t for agriculture, you and I wouldn’t eat,” Hazel said. “And as far as the energy part of it, we’re part of the solution.”
“Everybody finds their purpose; that’s just what I felt like was part of mine, you know?” Pekelder said. “To farm and to provide value growing corn, soybeans and making things more sustainable.”
“Being able to be more sustainable in the future is going to be really important in the next hundred years or so, I believe,” Breheny said. “It all starts on the ground and in