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Tossed Out

Missouri plant joins list of ethanol facilities idled by high corn prices

Poet Biorefining's ethanol plant in Macon, Mo., looked greener back in April 2010. This file photo was taken the day President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the plant. (Photo courtesy of Poet Biorefining)
Poet Biorefining's ethanol plant in Macon, Mo., looked greener back in April 2010. This file photo was taken the day President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the plant. (Photo courtesy of Poet Biorefining)

Seventeen ethanol plants nationwide have been idled since last June because of a scarcity of affordable corn due to the drought and a weak market for the corn-based fuel. On Friday, a plant in Macon, Mo., took the hit — and brought the number to 18. 

The northeast Missouri plant is temporarily halting operations as corn prices top $7 a bushel. It's one of 27 plants that Poet Biorefining owns nationwide, and was the first ethanol plant opened in Missouri in 2000. It has been producing 46 million gallons of ethanol per year since 2003.

The plant's general manager, Steve Burnett, said Poet can’t find affordable corn because of stiff competition in the area from two other ethanol plants, livestock producers, feed mills and elevators on the Mississippi River buying grain for export.

"I can hold 2.4 million bushels here in our grain bins here on-site and they’re almost empty now," he said.

Burnett said Iowa is the closest place the plant could buy more corn. But the prices aren't any better there and the transportation costs would be prohibitive.

"It's very tough times for this industry when big oil pretty well controls the pricing that we’re able to get for ethanol," he said, "because they’re both our customer and our competitor."

Burnett said he doesn’t know when the plant will resume operations but its 44 full-time staff members will be kept on to make $14.5 million in improvements to the facility. While the plant is being idled the  company will purchase corn that Burnett hopes will be put to use in a couple of months. 

Several other Midwestern ethanol plants also are shut down because of high corn prices, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, including five in Nebraska, two in Illinois and one in Kansas.

A Malta Bend, Mo., plant run by Mid-Missouri Energy was also idled for six weeks in October because of a lack of corn and high corn prices. It was the first time the plant had shut down due to high grain prices since opening in 2005. Even though the Malta Bend plant is now back open, it's only producing 30 million gallons of ethanol annually, 20 million gallons less than it could if corn prices were lower.