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Soybean Business: Fueling Communities

REG’S Minnesota impact goes beyond biodiesel

This story was first featured in the March – April 2018 issue of Soybean Business and written by guest writer Tom DiBacco. 

During my tenure as a journalist in Washington, D.C., I can recall many an editor cautioning me, “the numbers don’t tell the whole story,” or “look beyond the numbers.” I can now say that it was wise advice for a naïve young man.

It’s part of the reason I traveled to southeastern Minnesota to put a human face on biodiesel’s economic impact on rural communities. Certainly, the numbers on a statewide basis are impressive. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the total economic impact of the biodiesel industry is estimated at $1.7 billion, with the total employment impact estimated at nearly 5,400 jobs.

But as I lug my travel weary, 54-year-old body out of my rental car at the entrance to the Renewable Energy Group (REG) Albert Lea biodiesel plant, the only number I’m focused on is 4. As in 4 degrees. Note to self: forget fashion, wear a wool cap. It’s far from comforting when I mention the weather and the unanimous response from local residents is, “it could be a lot worse.”

An Industry on the Move

In 2016, the REG Albert Lea plant supported 33 direct jobs, produced 38 million gallons of biodiesel, and purchased 182 million pounds of feedstock from Minnesota vendors, resulting in $51 million of added value to the state’s economy.

John Priefer has been a maintenance supervisor at REG Albert Lea for seven years.

“It’s a pleasant change,” Priefer says. “Instead of watching something decline, you’re watching something progress.”

Priefer knows all too well about vanishing industries. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he worked in the fastener industry at one point and watched jobs moving offshore, and thus his vocation tilted on a downward slide.

Prior to his move to nearby Northwood, Iowa, Priefer ran a valve and pump rebuilding company in Cleveland.

“It’s a nice surprise that those skills are still valuable in an agricultural area,” Priefer says.

Operations Supervisor Jeremy Larsen grew up in Southern Minnesota but after high school moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., with the rest of his family. Six years ago, Larsen took a gamble, packed up and re-planted roots in Glenville, Minn., a town of about 600 just a stone’s throw from the REG facility. He started as a night operator and worked his way up to managing 17 employees.

Larsen is active in the community, working as a volunteer firefighter, and for the most part, knows just about everyone in Glenville.

“It means a lot to me,” Larsen says. “But it’s more important for my kids. I can share childhood memories with them in an area I grew up. And growing up in an agriculture community, it’s awesome being able to help support local farmers.”

As I listen to the passion and gratitude in Larsen’s voice, I’m reminded of the Bon Jovi song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” His gamble appears to have paid off many times over.

Glenville Days

Renewable Energy Group’s Albert Lea, Minn., biodiesel plant sits a stone’s throw from Glenville, Minn., a town of about 600 people just north of the Iowa border.

Eager to experience the small-town charm Larsen has described, I make my way down the road to Glenville. Every June, the town hosts the Glenville Days celebration featuring a parade, free hotdog meals to kids 12 and under courtesy of the fire department, bovine bingo, and many, many other activities.

But at 3 degrees (yes the temperature has fallen again) the town appears quiet on this February day. I stop by a local business, Com-Tech, owned by Wes Webb, who’s lived in the community for 57 years. Com-Tech provides onsite communications equipment to REG Albert Lea.

It’s conveniently located just across the street from the town’s community center. Convenient because Webb also serves as the mayor of Glenville.

Of the biodiesel plant, Webb said, “It’s nice to have them here. It’s a good asset. There’s employment. They purchase locally. They’re a good community partner. Every employer you have contributes to the overall well-being of the area. And to have an employer such as REG that pays good wages and that has good jobs is important.”
A block and a half away I find Bob Knutson of Knutson Oil Company. The business was started by his father in 1951. Bob joined the business in 1975, followed by his brother, Larry, a few years later.
His company began hauling wastewater a few years ago from both REG facilities in Albert Lea and Mason City.
“We probably hired another 3-4 guys, plus we bought another three semis (locally), and we bought a couple of trailers (locally). There again you get that trickle down,”
Knutson says. “We haul the wastewater over to Riceville, Iowa, where they take the methane gas off of it and make electricity to put back on the grid. We’ve got six trailers total to haul this wastewater, and now all of a sudden, between what we were doing for REG, we have other customers that want our services.”
Knutson says the new hires are local, and they all have a great work ethic because they grew up working on farms.

From One Community to the Next

A ten-minute drive and I’ve arrived in Albert Lea, the county seat of Freeborn County.

The city has seen industries come and go. A meat packing plant shut down in 1990, putting 1,200 people out of work. In 2001, a devastating fire at the Farmland Foods meat processing plant left the city without its second largest employer.

“We’ve seen ups and downs in this community,” says Josh Quinlivan of Albert Lea Electric. “Our economy in this region is based on farming. If farming is not doing good, we’re not doing good.”

Quinlivan was born and raised in Albert Lea. He attended college in the Twin Cities but came back to his roots 14 years ago when the position at Albert Lea Electric became available.

The company converted the REG Albert Lea plant to all LED lighting for efficiency and maintenance.

“We’ve done a lot of their Datacom wiring, fiber-optic stuff, maintenance, and trouble-shooting,” Quinlivan says. “We would consider them one of our top customers. Anytime you have a successful company that seems like it’s sustainable, and we have a great relationship with them, that’s obviously good for us.”

Proud of Their Mission

I head back to REG Albert Lea for a few final words with Bryan Christjansen, the general manager of REG Albert Lea, Mason City and Okeechobee, Fla.

“We’re providing good paying jobs and good benefits to this community,” he says. “A lot of the younger generation that’s coming through now find that this is a very good place to work, and a safe working environment.”

Talking to local business owners over the past few days, I’ve been impressed with the stories of positive economic impact from the REG plant. But I didn’t take into account the pride the employees and members of the community had in the product.

“This facility probably has one of the best quality products that you’ll find throughout the biodiesel industry. And I would say the same thing for our facility in Mason City,” Christjansen says.

So when you hear those economic statistics related to the biodiesel industry, think beyond the numbers. Think of jobs saved. Staying in the \ community in which you were raised. Think of Glenville. Think of Albert Lea. Far more convincing than just numbers.

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