If your idea doesn't catch on at first, be patient — for a decade or two

One of the first visions for turning corn into ethanol for motor fuel on an industrial scale originated 60 years ago this month. I was there to hear that recommendation — made to board members of the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Dec. 4, 2017  By Jerry Carlson — In December 1957, my father, Glenn A. Carlson, urged the Iowa Farm Bureau Board to launch large-scale use of corn for ethanol as motor fuel. He had learned that the mothballed U.S. Army ethanol plant near Omaha, Nebraska, built during WW II, was available for a few cents on the dollar of its original cost.

My father was usually innovating on his Page County farm. He was the county's first farmer to own a diesel tractor, the first to own a combine, the first to brave the ridicule of owning a round baler. He was chairman of the Page County Farm Bureau when he made this proposal on ethanol.

Dad had studied the economics of reactivating the ethanol plant. Iowa's cash corn price in fall 1957 hovered just over $1 per bushel. Gasoline at the pump cost around 40 cents a gallon and had continued rising steadily for years. Given only the costs of reopening and operating the plant, ethanol-blended gasoline made sense — even without a renewable fuel blending mandate.

I had just returned from a year-long study tour at a university in the Philippines and a trip around the world. I believed that Americans could — and should — lead the way into cleaner fuels. Ethanol blended into gasoline served well as an octane booster and could mean cleaner air as well. It might avoid leaded fuel, then being pushed by major oil corporations. However, the gasoline industry was eager to introduce leaded gasoline despite lead's well-known toxic damage. The gasoline refiners and retailers won that battle and began selling leaded gasoline soon after 1957. Years of lead poisoning followed. Evidence mounted and was swept into oblivion by the gasoline industry. Finally in 1995, citing long-clear evidence, EPA required a phaseout of U.S. leaded gasoline. EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner said, “The elimination of lead from gasoline is one of the great environmental achievements of all time."

Here's an excerpt from Dad's Dec. 14, 1957 letter to the Farm Bureau board, addressed to Ken Thatcher, then Secretary of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation:

Glenn Carlson, Iowa farmer and innovater

"I am very much enthused about the future industrial uses of agricultural products. I believe that the Iowa Farm Bureau can be a pioneer in that program. The corn alcohol plant in Omaha should be re-activated, and a demonstration made of the future possibilities of ethanol in that area. The information, data and suggestions I have could be received and appraised in about a half-hour. Could it be arranged to give me that much time at your next board meeting the 26th of December?

No doubt the agenda will be crowded, but I honestly feel that I would not be wasting the time of the Board. Thank you very much, and my sincere wishes for a Joyous and Happy Christmas.

Glenn A. Carlson

I encouraged Dad, and asked to join him in his presentation to the board. I was the prop man, holding the charts and talking points he had prepared. No PowerPoint available then. Several Farm Bureau state board members were enthused. But nothing of substance occurred within the Iowa organization.

Dad lived to age 93 and saw much of the ethanol revolution occur. In the seven days ending Dec. 6, 2017, U.S. ethanol plants produced almost 8 million barrels of ethanol. But it all happened many years after Dad's insightful proposal. Henry Ford had also anticipated ethanol as a motor fuel, and designed his original quadricycle and the Model T to run on pure ethanol. Here's a link to a timeline of ethanol development in the United States.

If I were to make a pitch for innovation today before the Iowa Farm Bureau board (as I approach age 82), it would be to urge that organization to mobilize its members for non-GMO, biologically based ag production. Build long-term soil health, and nutritional health in America. I'm sure at least a few board members would nod their heads in agreement. The majority would probably glance at each other with a look of "What's he been smokin' ?"

Reckon I'll have to wait a couple of decades too.