BENSON-Gene Fynboh didn't like the price of corn, but what bothered him most was watching all of the corn he and other farmers in western Minnesota grow being poured into trains for delivery elsewhere.
"We might as well be putting our kids on the trains,'' Fynboh said.
It's what motivated him to become a founding member of one of the state's first farmer-owned companies devoted to producing ethanol.
The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company celebrated its 20th anniversary of adding value to corn by processing it locally with public events Friday in Benson, home to its 50 million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant.
"We had a lot of people who believed that we could,'' said Board Chairman David Thompson when speaking about how the company not only persevered and survived, but thrived.
Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company has shown a profit in 19 of its 20 years, and returned more than $160 million back to its shareholders during that time. Every $1 investment has returned $11.70. With the stock splits calculated, every $1 investment is now worth three- or four-fold the amount, Thompson said.
Fynboh remains a member of the board of directors. He likes to point out that the plant is now one of Benson's major employers with a staff of 50. The value-added earnings it produces stay in the community and benefit the local economy. It makes it possible for young people to find work in the rural area, he said.
As for the price of corn, Thompson said the market demand for 17 million bushels of corn created by the plant each year, along with a similar demand by the Bushmills ethanol plant in Atwater, has unquestionably boosted its price. He believes that area farmers realize a benefit of 5 cents to 10 cents per bushel due to the demand from the ethanol plants.
The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company plant put Benson on the map as an energy producer when it went into production in May 1996. An initial investment of roughly $30 million resulted in a plant capable of producing 17 million gallons of fuel ethanol a year.
Only the sixth ethanol plant in Minnesota at the time, it also featured a unique design that allowed it to diversify its production. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company became known nationally as a pioneer in producing distilled alcohol for Shakers vodka as well as industrial alcohol. Sales of distilled alcohol-now destined to be part of Phillip's Prairie Organic Vodka-and industrial alcohol remain important to its financial success, speakers at the anniversary celebration noted.
The company has also diversified by investing in 30 million gallons of ethanol production capacity at five other ethanol plants.
The farmer-owned cooperative has its own engineering staff and continues to pioneer new opportunities with the plant.
"There was no template,'' said former general manager Mike Jerke, who credited employee innovation with adding greatly to the value of the operation. "(Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company) blazed the trail for many of the ethanol plants behind us,'' Jerke said.
"Complacency has never been part of our business model,'' Thompson said. He said improving efficiency is the major focus today. The company recently added a new, more efficient boiler and is in the process of constructing a new cooling tower for the same goal of improving efficiency.
The plant was also a pioneer in marketing its product, according to Bill Lee, who served as its general manager for the first 14 years of its history. Lee said the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company brought together a number of other, small farmer-owned plants so they could market on a competitive basis with larger commodity companies.
The plant was among the first to promote E85 alcohol, and the first in the state to offer E85 sales for consumers at its doors, sidestepping the middleman.
Speakers at the celebration cited a wide range of reasons for the company's success, from local support and leadership to the investors and employees who have believed in its mission. Afterwards, Fynboh offered one other reason: "We were stubborn enough to keep at it.''