What to know about Poet, the world-leading ethanol producer President Joe Biden visited in Iowa

Tyler Jett
Farm Forum

President Joe Biden's visit to Poet's ethanol plant in Menlo follows the path of his predecessors. 

"Renewable, homegrown fuels are a key part of our strategy for a clean energy future," then-President Barack Obama said during a 2010 visit to POET's Macon, Missouri, plant.

“What you’re doing is a fantastic thing, and we stay away from the Middle East, and we can take care of ourselves right here," Donald Trump said during his own visit to POET's Gowrie plant near Fort Dodge while campaigning for president in 2015.

Grain storage bins sit on the edge of the grain ethanol production facility operated by Poet on Feb. 11, 2014, in Emmetsburg.

As the world's largest ethanol producer, Poet has found itself in a plum position among politicians. Conservatives tout the biofuel as making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. And liberals generally celebrate it as a cleaner form of energy than gasoline, in part because corn absorbs carbon dioxide.

And then there are the corn growers themselves, a block both parties want to appeal to. More ethanol means more corn purchases. In its most recent sustainability report, Poet  said it purchases commodities from 40,000 farmers.

Here's what else to know about the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based company.

Where did Poet get its start?

Poet's roots start with Lowell Broin, a farmer who raised corn and livestock on about 1,200 acres in southeast Minnesota.

To diversify, he and his sons built their first small ethanol plant in 1985 and opened Broin Companies. Two years later, according to a CNN profile, the family bought a second plant from a bankrupt business in Scotland, South Dakota, for $72,000, with Broin financing the deal by mortgaging his farm. 

His son Jeff took charge of renovating the facility, according to Forbes. He was 22 at the time, and he said told the magazine he slept in the office while welding and cutting metal for the plant.

The company grew over the years and partnered with farmers around the Midwest who wanted to open other plants. Jeff Broin bought out his brothers in 2006 and, a year later, renamed the company Poet.

"As a poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful, we use creativity that comes from common sense to leave things better than we found them," Broin said in a company statement.

Poet got a big boost in 2005, when Congress passed the Renewable Fuels Standard. The law requires oil refineries to blend ethanol into gasoline. Most U.S. fuel today contains around 10% ethanol.

Poet makes several other products, including corn oil, dry ice and animal feed, a byproduct of the ethanol-making process. Its website says it employs about 2,200 people.

In 2008, according to Forbes, the private company reported $4 billion in annual revenue. That figure doubled by 2019, according to CNN.

Is Poet still growing?

The Menlo plant that Biden will visit Tuesday is a recent acquisition for Poet.

The company announced in June that it had bought the biofuels portfolio of Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the company long owned by Republican billionaires donors Charles and David Koch.

The acquisition included six ethanol plants, five of them in Iowa. In addition to the Menlo site, Poet took over factories in Arthur, Fairbank, Iowa Falls and Shell Rock.

Before the deal, Flint Hills had been the fifth-largest ethanol producer in the country, according to Reuters. The deal increased the amount of ethanol Poet can make in a year by about one third.

Poet can now produce 3 billion gallons a year — about 19% of all ethanol made in the United States in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This acquisition will increase Poet’s ability to bring even more high-quality, plant-based biofuels and bioproducts to the world — allowing us to have an even bigger impact on fighting climate change and cleaning our air,” Broin said in a statement after the deal closed.

The deal also included two terminals, in Georgia and Texas.

Where else is Poet in Iowa?

In addition to the factories the company bought from Flint Hills, POET operates plants in Ashton, Coon Rapids, Corning, Emmetsburg, Gowrie, Halontown and Jewell.

Is Poet politically connected?

Yes. A Des Moines Register review of Federal Election Commission filings shows that Jeff Broin and his wife, Tammie Broin, have given about $1.4 million to campaigns and political action committees since 2000.

The couple were modest givers at the beginning of that period. From 2000 to 2006, the Broins gave about $7,000 a year.

But in 2007, when Congress passed a bill increasing the amount of renewable fuel that refineries needed to blend, the Broins' giving picked up. 

The couple has given to members of both parties. But they provide funding to Republican politicians much more often, a Des Moines Register analysis found. 

Since 2000, the Broins have given about $156,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee — the single biggest recipients of the couple's spending.

The couple also has been involved in Iowa politics. Jeff Broin gave $2,400 to the Iowa Democratic Party in 2014. He then gave $15,000 to the Great Iowa Fund, a political action committee that routed money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst's U.S. Senate campaign.

They also gave her reelection campaign $10,000 in 2019.

Other Iowa politicians who have been beneficiaries of the Broins' giving include:

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley: $9,200 from 2003 to 2015

Former Republican U.S. Rep. David Young: $7,600 from 2014 to 2019

Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne: $5,800 in 2021

Republican House candidate Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association: $2,600 in 2014

Democratic House candidate Christie Vilsack: $1,500 in 2012

In May 2008, Broin's company formed the Poet PAC, which supports candidates "who are committed to being champions for America’s biofuel and agricultural industries," according to its website.

The political action committee has raised about $4.2 million, with about half of the money coming from donors who list Poet as their employer, according to FEC filings. Jeff Broin's brother Todd is the top contributor, giving $65,000.

Jeff Broin is also a founding chair of Growth Energy, a biofuel trade association that formed in November 2008. The association launched a political action committee in February 2010, spending about $1.5 million over the last 12 years.

Where else does that money go?

The Broins also run a nonprofit, Seeds of Change.

According to the organization's website, the family started the foundation after traveling to Kenya on a Christian mission trip in 2012. The organization aims to support agriculture and educational initiatives in parts of Africa.

Seeds of Change raised about $7.6 million from 2015 to 2019, according to tax filings. About $5 million of that money came from Poet. Another $450,000 came from Growth Energy.

According to the filings, Seeds of Change supports farmers in Kenya and Uganda, providing education as well as seeds, tillage tools and animals. In Kenya, the organization also supports a school for the deaf, meals for elementary school students, three elementary school teaching positions and tuition and school supplies for high school students.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.