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Iowa farmer hopes corn cobs will bring in extra cash

October 22, 2009 - 12:22pm

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Todd Mathisen’s family has been working the rich soil in Northwest Iowa for the last 130 years, ever since his great-great grandfather homesteaded the land in the 1870s. Todd has cultivated the fields himself for the last three decades. His family’s roots here go so deep they’d be pretty hard to pull up now, and he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

But that doesn't mean Todd is stuck in his ways.  In fact, he's at the forefront of American farmers helping to supply the United States with a biofuel that may have a promising future:  cellulosic ethanol.

He grows corn and soybeans at his farm in Cylinder, a little community of about 100 that has a grain elevator and a bank, but not much else – except farms. Here, people wave hello to their neighbors. The town’s kids go to school – and its families conduct most of their everyday business – in Emmetsburg, a bigger "small" town less than ten miles down the road.

In Cylinder, farming is what most people do for a living. The older two of Todd’s three sons are professionals in Des Moines. One is an asset manager and the other is a commercial real estate loan officer, but Todd hopes his third son will come back to work the land with him after college. “I think I lost the other two to the city, but there’s still hope for my youngest,” he jokes.

For the last few years, he has harvested between 350,000 to 400,000 bushels – that’s more than 20 million pounds per season – from his 2,200 acres dedicated to corn. Then, he has sold the kernels to the nearby ethanol producer. But this year, Todd Mathisen will do things somewhat differently.

“We’re just in the process of getting started with cob harvesting,” Todd says. “We’re planning to harvest every acre of corn we grow.”

For the first time, when he harvests in October and November, Todd will capture the corn cobs at the same time as the kernels. His harvesting machinery will strip the cobs of the grain and separate them as they leave the harvester combine. He and his workers will catch the cobs with a cart towed behind the combine. That allows him to keep the combine running while the cart unloads cobs at the end of the field, in turn, keeping productivity up.

Then, when he goes to drop off the grain at the ethanol plant about 10 miles down the road, he’ll bring along the corn cobs – which usually go to waste in the harvest. Mathisen can also leave the cobs at the edge of his fields if he chooses, and the ethanol plant will arrange for pickup.

This season, the nearby ethanol plant, operated by an ethanol business called POET, will pay Todd and a little more than a dozen other farmers about $10 per acre for their cobs, and it will provide all of the harvesting equipment they’ll need. Then, next year, when the farmers have their own equipment, POET will pay them $45 per acre. If Todd gets that much for all of his 2,200 acres of corn, he’ll recover close to $100,000 from cobs in the 2010 growing season. Although agriculture equipment companies have not set prices for new cob-collecting equipment, the reward could easily make it worthwhile over the years. For now, Todd says many farmers are taking the wait-and-see approach because cob harvesting for cellulosic ethanol is a pretty new technology.

“They’re a little skeptical that it will work, but they are hopeful,” he says.

The extra income could be a big boost for him and other farmers in the area. It will also benefit local laborers, equipment manufacturers and the local economy as a whole. And any new, environmentally-sound technology that improves the bottom line for corn farmers, especially those who got blindsided by the economic downturn, will be a welcome innovation, he says.

“Everyone wants to make ethanol – a renewable fuel – from waste products,” Todd says. “It means less crude oil from foreign countries and a new source of income for farmers. That’s just a win-win deal.”

POET plans to build a $200 million cost-shared commercial facility to produce clean-burning cellulosic ethanol in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy beginning in 2010. It will turn a small-scale pilot project that currently produces around 20,000 gallons of ethanol a year into an operation capable of cranking out 25 million gallons annually.

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