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Ethanol plant hosts open house

HERON LAKE -- Speakers attending the Heron Lake BioEnergy open house Saturday offered a message of gratitude and encouragement to those investors who helped make the ethanol plant a reality.

"We kept fighting and fighting and fighting because these folks had a vision, they wanted us to be self-reliant," District 22A Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton said. "This is the first time we've seen a shakiness of support for ethanol ... we've got to keep pushing for our biofuels."

Magnus quoted Charles Dickens, saying efforts to develop the plant, which began in 2001, represented "the best of times and the worst of times" for the ethanol industry.

Throughout the morning, a steady stream of investors and their families toured the $119 million facility, the first in Minnesota to be fueled primarily by coal and have the capacity to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol each year. The event was later opened to the public.

"I've never toured a plant before," said Wilbert Hahn, a retired farmer from Brownton who was attracted to the plant because they employ a full-time corn buyer. "It's the first (plant) I've invested in ... it's quite a plant, isn't it?"

Bill Berg, a corn and soybean farmer from Delft, said he decided to invest because he believed in the future of ethanol, both as a means to reduce dependence on foreign oil and provide another market for his corn.

Plant employees began production last September, but board member David Bach said they waited to make sure the plant was fully operational before bringing in their more than 1,000 investors.

"The cleanliness of the plant compared to other ethanol plants, I think they're impressed with that," he said.

"Goodness, even the railroad cars are clean," exclaimed Gene Hugoson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, in his speech.

Board member Dave Woestehoff said investors were also concerned with their returns amidst talk of increased corn prices.

"We don't really know what it's going to be until the end of the year, but we're pleased with early indications regarding financial results," he said.

Dist. 22B Rep. Rod Hamiliton, R-Mountain Lake, spoke briefly, thanking those in attendance for their investment in the plant, which also created 50 jobs in the area. From others, there was a message of progress.

"Twenty years ago, people said ethanol would never work in Minnesota," Hugoson said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Web site, the state produced 550 million gallons of ethanol in 2006.

"By Christmas, the ethanol industry will supply 10 percent of the motor fuel in this country," said Ron Fagen, of construction company Fagen Inc. "You have done your part to help this country. The Midwest is doing its part."