In July 1979, 1,500 farmers left their cornfields to attend a fuel alcohol symposium in Des Moines, IA.
Last July—in a huge, dirt-floored exhibition hall where some of the finest show cattle in the nation are generally put on display—1,500 Iowa farmers got together for a different kind of show. The occasion was the first Farm Alcohol Field Day, jointly sponsored by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB) and the Iowa Development Commission with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Energy. It was one of the first opportunities for experts in the "art and science" of producing fuel alcohol in small, farm-scale plants to gather in one place so that the farmers (who'll be the ones to build and operate such installations) could get at them.
Now it takes more than fancy theories and "pie-in-the-sky"
fantasies to get a passel of hard-workin' sodbusters to
spend a summer Saturday listenin' to speeches, especially
when the jaw-bonin' takes place in a sizzling hot glorified
cow barn! So when the professional "men of the soil" jammed
into the State Fairgrounds Livestock Exhibition Hall in Des
Moines, Iowa to listen to the experts discuss on-farm
alcohol fuel production, you can bet the farmers were
bankin' on hearing some worthwhile information.
"Iowa farmers have decided that they're not going to wait for the day when their tractors sit idle for lack of fuel," explained Thurman Gaskill, ICPB chairman. "They're looking for energy alternatives," he continued, "and many have expressed a desire to learn about producing alcohol on their farms as a means of stretching their fuel supplies." Gaskill (and who could make up a better name for someone involved in the fight against petroleum dependence?) went on to say, "Farmers want to know how to construct an alcohol still, what's involved in maintaining such equipment, what the cost factors of distillation are, and what permits must be obtained." He might have added that Iowa's corn growers (and the ICPB) are interested in alcohol fuel for another reason, as well:
It would provide the perfect additional market in which to sell the estimated 1.8 billon bushels of "carryover," or surplus, corn which is produced in the United States each year.
Speakers at the Field Day included Iowa Congressman Berkley Bedell (one of Washington's strongest alcohol backers) and Department of Energy representative Bill Holmberg. As the director of DOE's Citizen Participation Division, Holmberg is particularly interested in ensuring that federal financing and incentives for alcohol production be made available to small farmers and cooperatives, as well as to large corporations.
On hand to demonstrate the feasibility of on-farm distillation for the individual farmer were Alan and Diane Zeithamer of Alexandria, Minnesota. As bona fide working farmers—talkin' sense to an audience of their fellow agriculturists—the Zeithamers were the hit of the fair. (See "The Zeithamer Family: Alcohol Fuel at Work," for more information on the energy self-sufficiency of these progressive farm folk.)
In a way, the Field Day's only problem was its success. That's right! Strange as it may seem, so many interested potential distillers showed up at the Fairgrounds extravaganza that the kind of one-on-one, farmer-to-expert discussion which had been planned just wasn't possible.
But, problems or not, the show was a roarin' success. After all, what could be more important than getting some 1,500 farmers together and letting 'em know that the farm-based production of fuel is not a pipe dream?