farm

Harvest Desk: Ethanol At A Crossroads

Jan 21, 2014
Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

A steady stream of semi-trailers rolls across the scales at the E Energy ethanol plant near the town of Adams in southeast Nebraska. The smokestack behind the scale house sends up a tall plume of white steam. The sweet smell of fermenting corn is in the air.

E Energy buys 65 million bushels of corn each day from area farmers and turns it into 65 million gallons of ethanol each year.

When John Beetz’s great-great-grandfather came to America from Germany in the mid-1800s, he worked as a longshoreman in New York. Then he turned to farming the fertile soil in north central Illinois.

Succeeding generations built on their ancestor’s legacy. And today, Beetz and other members of his extended family farm 8,000 acres near Mendota in LaSalle County. In fact, they operate one of the largest farms in the state. Yet they remain dependent on federal farm subsidies.

Farming is as fickle a calling as politics, and every farmer expects a bad year now and then. But 2001 was the fifth in a string of bad years. In April, a bushel of corn fetched $1.87 on the open market and soybeans were bringing $4.23, in both cases much less than it cost to grow them. 

George Atkinson

He started simply enough. The Illinois countryside, with its fertile fields and open sky, makes for pretty drawings in pastels. But then George Atkinson had what he calls his "epiphany," when he began to see what is mostly invisible from the Interstate, and fast disappearing from the landscape. He realized his art could express something beyond rural beauty: It could document, in a sense preserve, a way of life he saw reflected in the Midwest's dwindling number of family-owned dairy farms.