American consumers are searching for answers to higher gas prices. Ethanol provides one answer that could also boost the Van Wert economy.
American consumers are searching for answers to higher gas prices. Ethanol provides one answer that could also boost the Van Wert economy.

Times Bulletin Multimedia Editor

There's no doubt that many Americans are looking for alternative energy sources in response to the rising cost of fuel. What isn't clear - at least across the board - is what that answer is.

"I think there's a lot of discussion about using bio energy - whether that's ethanol, biodiesel, etcetera," said Van Wert County OSU Extension Agent Andy Kleinschmidt. "The upside is that we have the ability to use existing resources and we don't have to import - we can grow it in our backyard."

Kleinschmidt added the other side of the debate is that products like ethanol are somehow raising the cost of food.

"Some people say that ethanol is causing it, others say ethanol has little or nothing to do with it and the cost of oil is causing it. The sides go back and forth," said Kleinschmidt.

Mark Bateman and Nancy Kukay of Van Wert Energy, the company seeking to build an ethanol plant in Van Wert County, are campaigning to educate area citizens about ethanol and the value of agriculture to the community.

"We want to start with agricultural statistics and work into some ethanol statistics and let everybody decide in their minds, in the next six to eight months when I go before the board of zoning, if they want us here or not," said Bateman, who added that the company is currently in an offering with the Ohio SECC, which prohibits discussion of specific details regarding the proposed plant in Van Wert County at this time.

In January of this year, Gov. Ted Strickland signed Executive Order 2007-02 that established an energy adviser to the governor to coordinate the state's efforts to create jobs through becoming a leader in the production of next generation energy. In a press release at that time, Strickland said, "One of the core principles of my Turnaround Ohio plan is to invest in Ohio's strengths. Clearly, energy production is one of those strengths. I am convinced that we can create thousands of good-paying jobs by encouraging next-generation energy production in Ohio including ethanol, clean coal, wind and solar."

Ohio is behind the rest of the states currently producing ethanol, but new plants are popping up, with one being as close as Lima. Bateman contended that a competitor, specifically E85 fuel, is the only thing that will hold down the price of the barrel of oil.

"The price of corn is going up and it's raised the price of food by four percent, but the cost of food has doubled," said Bateman. "It's total energy that's the culprit. A barrel of oil has gone from $60 dollars to $135. That reflects through everything out there."

Kukay added, "In the broader sense, we're all wrestling with how to address the energy needs."

Although Ohio isn't the top producer of corn in the nation, it does rank sixth in grain production. Gas stations already use 10 percent ethanol in the gas blends, according to Bateman. That 10 percent alone has to come from somewhere. An ethanol plant in the county would provide a local market for corn.

Although Kleinschmidt could not vouch for every side of the argument, good or bad, he did said a local market is a boon for local agriculture.

"I think any industry that is using an agricultural product - an ethanol plant or new livestock operation, or something else - anything that is using that output of corn and soybeans is good for the agriculture economy by providing an agricultural market," said Kleinschmidt.

Agriculture alone does not provide a vast amount of jobs and ethanol plants historically do not provide as many jobs as some manufacturing facilities. However, Kukay said the benefits of both cannot be ignored. Farmers must buy expensive equipment, fuel, seed, homes and pay taxes.

"We've tended, in Ohio and the country at large, to equate large numbers of jobs with prosperity and growth. The Honda plant would be a good example of bringing in 1,500 jobs. Because no one farm employees that many people, they don't see that as having an economic benefit, but it sure does," said Kukay. "Agriculture is manufacturing in a different sense and still bringing lots of money for the community. It just takes a different way of looking at things."

Kleinschmidt agreed that there is a "tremendous" amount of money wrapped up in agriculture. Looking at gross sales, there is around an $80 million dollar industry in Van Wert County alone. Not all of that goes back into Van Wert County, but a significant portion does.

"When you have strength in agriculture, that tends to attract other agricultural-related businesses," said Kukay. "It makes the farm implement stores, grain elevators and the local retail places prosperous. In Ohio, when we're having so many economic problems, you have to be able to capitalize on what your strengths is. In Van Wert County, that strength is agriculture right now."