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  • Unconventional Ag

Farmers Who Own Beleaguered Minnesota Ethanol Plant Make Fresh Bet on Corn Fuel

The farmer-owned Corn Plus ethanol plant opened in Minnesota in 1994, rapidly becoming successful and expanding to an output of 42 million gallons per year. However, the operation faced difficulties in keeping pace with its competitors, had unplanned production outages in 2013 and 2014, and was hit with $1.1 million in fines for repeatedly breaking environmental laws since 2009.

In August 2014 the co-operative announced in a letter to its 600 farmer-owners that it was proposing a deal to sell the plant at 0.34 cents per gallon of annual capacity, or $14 million – far below the median price of $1.10 to $1.20 per gallon of annual capacity. The shareholders rejected the sale two to one believing that the co-op could indeed be profitable.

ICM Inc., the engineering company that designed the bulk of U.S. ethanol plants (but not Corn Plus) approached the co-operative and in an unusual move, bought a 25% stake in the operation for $4 million, agreeing to run the plant through its new unit, Energy Management Solutions, created to manage and turn around underperforming ethanol plants.

In quick succession, Corn Plus named Rick Serie of ICM’s management unit as its new CEO, recapitalized by raising $7 million from shareholders, including ICM in a convertible debt offering, reassured regulators that the operation will move forward in full environmental compliance, and is set to begin installing new equipment as part of a $5.7 million upgrade using ICM’s Selective Milling Technology to gain efficiency and improve margins.

This rapid turn-around is one of the latest signs that farmers still have confidence in the future of corn-based fuel production, even in the face of industry consolidation.

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