Wednesday, June 02, 2004


Monday, between storms, I saw a scarlet tanager in the one moment of sunlight. Everything shone green behind it, heavy with moisture. The bird itself held my attention. A splash of fresh blood on carpet. So red it took my breath away.



Some apprehend with their minds. These become the scholars.

Some apprehend with their hearts and hands and eyes, more directly. These become your middle western poets.


APRIL 23, 2004

This afternoon at 1:30 p.m. I went up to Iowa Lakes Community College on the northwest corner of town for a ground-breaking ceremony. Well - the talkin' part of it would be at the college, the gold shovels were out at the site where the Broin Companies' Voyager ethanol plant is to be built, a mile southeast of Emmetsburg, almost across the road from AGP's soybean processing plant.

Half the auditorium at the college was set up with coffee and cookies and such; the other half had the stage, and chairs for the couple hundred people in attendance.

Most of the folks knew each other. They stood in groups, talking. The din of their conversation died down as the program started getting underway and people took their seats.

Larry Ward of the Broin Companies em-cee'd the program. He is project manager for the venture.

John Bird, Emmetsburg's City Administrator, was the first of nine speakers. He said, "It's a great afternoon - the sun is shining, it's Friday, and we have the opportunity to welcome the Broin Companies." Factors that made Broin select Emmetsburg for the ethanol plant? "I believe they heard what great people lived in this county," Bird said, "and they said, 'let's build a plant there.'"

Larry Ward concurred. He said: "It's not the corn, it's the fantastic people in the area." And he introduced Lannie Miller, a Palo Alto County Supervisor.

Miller said: "We haven't even scratched the surface of what we can do with an ear of corn."

Jeff Broin spoke next. He is the CEO of the Broin Companies. He said Emmetsburg's Voyager plant is the Broin Companies' twentieth. Broin handles development, design, operation, and marketing for the plant, which is owned by a group of 12,000 private investors, including many Palo Alto County farmers. "This will be one of the most efficient ethanol plants in the country," Broin said. The project will cost $64 million, it'll create an annual payroll of $1.5 million, it will employ 40 people. It will process corn from 115,000 acres, to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.

"The nation benefits as we produce more of our energy at home," Broin said.

Brian Jennings was the glad-hander of the bunch. He's with the American Coalition for Ethanol.

"Fantastic day for this community and the area," he said.

"Congratulations to the investors for putting their money to work in this effort producing clean energy," he said.

"I want to congratulate the farmer-investors, showing they can pulls themselves up by their bootstraps," he said.

"By the end of 2004, Iowa will produce more ethanol than any other state," he said. "Nine hundred million gallons. The equivalent of California's ethanol needs."

"We can expect the price of corn to increase 12 cents per bushel," he said.

"No better time to get into ethanol," Jennings said. "I want to assure you the market will continue to grow."

You would think Jennings sounded Republican, except when he talked about Iraq, about why we had troops there. He said that "another reason they're over there is oil. This facility will help create energy independence." I've never before heard a Republican actually admit we went to war for oil. So either he's not Republican, or he slipped up.

Matt Eide of the Iowa Ethanol Producers Association was more politic. He said: "We have a great friend of ethanol up here, Senator Kibbe." He said: "You have one heck of a company in the Broin Companies." This is the one you want in Palo Alto County."

Mike Jerke of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said: "You will definite benefit from the impact of this plant. It will have a $481 million impact." I didn't catch whether that was for a year, for the life of the plant, or for the half-life of uranium.

Daryl Haack talked of the "special meaning for Iowa farmers" that the ground-breaking should have. He talked of the promise "for a better rural economy."

"Last year," he said, "a billion bushels of corn were used to produce ethanol."

"Corn worth $2.60 was used to create a product worth $4.75," he said.

"An increase of 12 cents per bushel of corn means an increase of $22 million per year for farmers in Palo Alto County," he said.

Ellen Huntoon got it. She was from US Senator Tom Harkin's office. "I'm a farm girl," she said, "so I drive like my dad, with my head to the side."

"From the Senator's point of view," she said, "we need to be aware of our consumption. Yesterday was Earth Day. What are we doing for the earth? Ethanol is a big step in the right direction."

Larry Ward again. "Many have pitched in to make this project happen," he said.

"We need to recognize Shirley Schmitt of the local office," he said. "Without her we probably wouldn't have a ground-breaking today."

"Well, how come she's not up on the dias," I wondered.

Then soon enough we were out at the site of the new plant, a mile southeast of Emmetsburg; we were standing around waiting for the intersection of cosmic forces that would allow the taking of a photograph of the actual "ground-breaking" itself. The planets not being quite in alignment yet, I had the opportunity to listen to a couple old men talking. It's not exactly the talk you expect to hear in a conservative Republican state. One of the fellows looked like a retired farmer wearing his years in his hands and eyes and face. The other fellow was probably a lawyer or retired lawyer, a white-mopped head, a green suit flapping on his bony frame. They stood next to each other, in each other's space even, as if they were old acquaintances, and they talked. I start my eavesdropping in mid-conversation; it was going like this: "... he has to get rid of bin Laden and deal with that other political problem and do something with the economy before he has a chance." The old farmer continued: "Just get out of there. I've always been a supporter of our military but he got us in some place we had no business going...."

The principals were lined up with hard hats and golden shovels, about nine of them. This used to be corn field. "On the count of three," the photographer said, "dig!"

"Awright!" went up the cheer. Everyone applauded. The sun shone on Republicans and Democrats alike.

"Everybody get enough pictures?" someone asked.

"Try another one," someone said.

"Dig deeper this time."


JUNE 2, 1998

Our peonies are playing themselves out. Everything is early. Heat in the waters of the Pacific Ocean affects us. Everything is connected, isn't it? We can think regional if we wish, but we cannot forget the global perspective. Air and water, winds and tides connect us. The dust of Dustbowl, Montana, sets down in Depression, Wisconsin.

Grey skies.

The radio says the Wisconsin travel season has started earlier than usual this year, due, it is suggested, to the warm El Nino spring. Everything is connected, isn't it?

The corn has grown amazing inches over the past week. Some of it is nearly a foot tall already.

A big blast of peonies at Five Corners - red and pink and white. They blaze in full glory, they wave in the wind.

What they want is choice, the radio says of high school students in their cafeterias. What they get is the same ol' fast food - hamburgers and tacos and pizza. Now Chinese, Thai, Indian, Afghani, Greek, German food, that would be the start of choice. Junk food for the tummy, junk for the mind. There are way too many overweight people in this country, victims of someone's desire to make a dollar. You have to work at it to eat healthy foods these days. Where was it that we went off track? Back in the Eisenhower 1950s, when we all thought we should be the same as our suburban others? And wear the same white whites? Buy the same kitchen appliances, the same dinette set? Spread the same Miracle Whip on the same Wonderbread? And our hair? A little dab'll do ya!

Is this enough of the Fat Man preaching? Yeah, I think so.

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