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Corn, soybean farmers gain with renewable fuels push

National Corn Growers and American Soybean Association members are basking in the glow of the media spotlight on ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable energy sources.

President Bush's State of the Union plug for renewable fuels was just the latest in a series of developments that have helped push corn and soybean prices higher than anyone dreamed possible a few months ago.

Joe Kirksey looks at all of the media attention and just smiles. Kirksey, who was honored with the Arkansas Soybean Association's first lifetime achievement award recently, remembers when the situation with renewable fuels wasn't so sanguine.

A native of Mulberry in western Arkansas, Kirksey was a charter member of the United Soybean Board, the organization that oversees soybean research and promotion funds. (Now 79, Kirksey joined the Arkansas Soybean Association in 1966.)

“We spent $10 million on engine tests,” Kirksey told association members after accepting the lifetime achievement award at their annual meeting. “We had to qualify the engines before the government would allow us to use soy oil.

“It looked kind of bad for a while because we were spending all this money with no guarantee that it would work. But it's beginning to pay off,” he said with a grin. “We producers did that on our own — no one helped us do it. I'm glad I'm still around to see what has happened.”

The criticism that dogged the USB then lingers. We've all heard: “It takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of ethanol provides.” “Cars running on ethanol blends get poorer gas mileage.” “Some biofuels aren't meeting quality specs.”

Many supporters are justifiably concerned about the possibility OPEC may bump up production, sending oil prices plummeting and pricing alternative fuels out of the market. This time, however, the industry appears to have the administration in its corner.

Tom Dorr, USDA undersecretary for rural development who also spoke at the Arkansas meeting, expanded on President Bush's State of the Union call for “a 20 percent reduction in gasoline usage in 10 years.”

Although some said the president's “20 X 10” plan doesn't go far enough, Dorr said the move to decrease dependence on foreign oil could become a defining moment in America's history.

Saying the United States has done more on renewable energy in the last six years than the previous 30, Dorr said he believes corn and soybean farmers will be “driving the train on renewable fuels.”

Supporters say the industry still has a ways to go before it can rest on its laurels. Two days after Bush spoke, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council noted motorists in Atlanta, Memphis, Tampa and many other cities don't have access to ethanol blends.

EPIC and the National Biodiesel Board have a boatload of statistics about how flexible fuel vehicles and diesel cars could eliminate the need for billions of gallons of gasoline and regular diesel.

Joe Kirksey would be all for that.

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