Big crowd, a little drama, at Onida ethanol plant forum

Farm Forum

ONIDA, S.D. – A forum on the plans for a $120 million ethanol plant here drew about 170 to the high school gym and climaxed with the chairman/CEO of the Iowa company pushing to build it face to face with the lawyerly attorney from Aberdeen retained by a handful of residents opposing the location of the plant.

After a heated exchange between Walt Wendland of Ring-neck Energy and Feed LLC of Mason City, Iowa, and Adam Altman, the persistent Aberdeen attorney going down a list of questions on a yellow legal pad, that drew them within a foot or so of each other, Wendland turned to the crowd: “Anyone want him to continue?”

“NO! NO!,” came loud answers from several in the crowd. Wendland then told Altman he hadn’t been asked to take part in the forum, which was organized by Ring-neck to answer concerns about the plant.

“I didn’t say you could speak,” Wendland told Altman. Applause broke out from half or more of the crowd, it appeared.

Wendland had asked Clark Guthmiller to speak.

Guthmiller is a loan officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development office in Pierre who lives across a gravel road from the proposed site of the ethanol plant on the southeast corner of this city of 770.

He wanted to make one thing clear, Guthmiller said: “Everyone in this community wants the ethanol plant to be built. This ethanol plant would be a great ecnomici benefit to this community. There’s only one thing, it’s so simple, it’s about that site.”

Guthmiller says the plant easily could be sited a mile or two south of town and not pose possible noise, fire and emissions problems.

But Wendland said it would cost too much to build new rail sidings and lose benefits of shipping next to the big grain elevator which still owns the parcel and has promised to sell it to Ring-neck for $420,000, what the grain elevator paid for the land.

It would mean $5 million more in start up construction costs and another $6.5 million in costs related to rail shipping not to use the rail sidings, natural gas, power and water already available at the site next to town, Wendland said.

Guthmiller said some business people in town opposed to that particular site have told him they are afraid to speak out because they might anger customers.

Harry Thomas, who raises purebred Angus and Charolais cattle east of Onida, as well as corn and other crops, says the plant makes a lot of sense. Right now, he trucks in the “distillers’ grain” byproduct of ethanol production from the Redfield plant, three loads a week at $450 in trucking costs. Plus, he has to ship his corn out of the area, cutting his profits. Having an ethanol plant right in Onida will cut his feed costs and raise his farming profits, Thomas said. “And it’s good for everyone in the county, not just in Onida,” he said.

Wendland’s group put on a half-hour presentation about all the good things that come with ethanol plants to small towns.

He said the new plant would employ more than 40 people at an average salary of $60,000 and mean more students in the school and more money spent all over town.

Guthmiller said he agrees with all that, but said with all the profit to be made by the proposed plant, it easily could be built further from Onida.

After Sully County officials approved the plan for the plant, Guthmiller mounted a successful petition drive to refer the decision. That election is slated for June 16, which is why Wendland held the forum.

Based on the turnout at the forum on May 13, one would think the county-wide vote would support the plant’s siting next to town.

But Guthmiller said he’s not sure. He and about six others hired Altman to represent their interests in keeping the proposed plant from coming up so close to town.