Sarah Lloyd is a member of Cambrians for Thoughtful Development, a citizens group concerned about a proposed ethanol plant in Cambria, Wis. She also works at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and tends to a large garden from which she eats and sells vegetables locally.

Monday, 17 Mar 2003

CAMBRIA, Wis.

As I drive through the little village of Cambria, Wis. (population: 790-something), my eye is quickly drawn to signs showing in windows and staked in yards. “YES ETHANOL CAMBRIA-FRIESLAND!” “NO ETHANOL PLANT IN THIS TOWN!” More and more signs are popping up. The lines are being more distinctly drawn. The upcoming April 1 referendum that will give voters a chance to say yes or no to a proposed ethanol plant in Cambria is drawing near.

When I first heard about ethanol I thought it sounded like a good thing. Making fuel for automobiles from a renewable resource, corn, which would reduce smog in urban areas and benefit the beleaguered farmer — sign me up! It was only when ethanol plants began being proposed for this area of south-central Wisconsin that I started to look more closely at the issue. And then in the late fall of 2002, when suddenly within a week there were two ethanol plants proposed for within two miles of my house, I knew I needed to find out for myself if this was a good thing.

Unfortunately, what I found out was not so rosy. It is hard sometimes to know where to begin with the ethanol story. There are a lot of gray areas.

I was at a conference of Wisconsin environmental organizations and conservation interests about a month ago. There was a sort of open-mike forum for people to call attention to pressing issues. We were told we would get a couple of minutes to “shout out” our issues. Well, with speakers running long, as can happen, in the end we were allowed 30 seconds each to speak. I knew I needed to be provocative if I wanted people to pay attention.

“I’d like to speak with you about ethanol today,” I said, “and there are three letters that you need to keep in mind when thinking about ethanol: A.D.M.” Hopefully that got their attention. For those who are not familiar with those three letters, ADM, or Archer Daniels Midland, is a multinational agribusiness that controls at least 40 percent of the ethanol production in this country. In addition, ADM reportedly controls a far more dominant part of the ethanol blending and transportation infrastructure. ADM is not putting up the ethanol plants in Wisconsin, at least not overtly, but they did just buy out the second-largest producer of ethanol, a farmer-owned co-op in Marshall, Minn. (If you’re interested, read more specifics on this buyout and ADM’s control of the ethanol market.)

Corn is an interesting commodity in the U.S. Corn, corn, corn, as far as the eye can see. Farmers grow corn even though the price is lousy, and the price is lousy in part because farmers are growing corn for a surplus market. Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the powerful ADM and agribusiness lobby managed to score a double victory. They got federal subsidies to support the production of ethanol (to the tune of $0.54/gallon to the blender), and they got the federal government to mandate the use of “reformulated” gasoline in key urban areas. The federal subsidies are amplified by state subsidies. Wisconsin had a $0.20/gallon subsidy on the books, but rumor has it that this has been cut down a bit. These subsidies for ethanol production are on top of the subsidies paid to farmers to grow the corn in the first place. So as a taxpayer, you are paying a subsidy to encourage farmers to grow a product that we don’t need, and then you have to subsidize someone with your tax dollars to make something out of that product.

Don’t be so negative, they say. If it’s good for the farmers and it’s good for the environment, then we should support it. Well, it’s not quite that simple. I guess I’ll start with the farmers since I live in farm country and this has been the most troublesome critique of my stance on ethanol. Farmers are in a terrible situation. The system has failed them. Small family farms are disappearing on a daily basis. This negatively affects families and rural communities. But growing mono-crop commodity corn for a surplus market is part of the system that has brought farmers to the brink. Building a monument to this failed system, in the form of an ethanol plant — or, for that matter, two within two miles of each other — is not my idea of a strategy for the long-term viability of family farms and rural communities.

Tractors have pull in this small town.

But this message does not get out. Citizens, including myself, who have come together on this issue in the Cambria area, in Wisconsin, and in the Midwest are labeled “anti-farmer.” The farmers defend their stake in this system with vigor. Here in Cambria, they brought their tractors to the streets in a show of support for ethanol. On a cold day in late December perhaps 50 tractors and other farm implements were paraded around and around the downtown streets. I’m sure it was the most activity this village has seen in a long time.

I’ve only managed to scratch the surface on the issue of ethanol in this first diary entry. Needless to say I am not a big fan of ethanol and I am concerned about it being produced in my backyard. Much of the information that has informed my actions is collected on a website put up by the citizens organization that I am part of. If your curiosity has been piqued, take a look at the Cambrians for Thoughtful Development site, and tune in to future entries for more on ethanol, NIMBY, and fun with PR professionals.