GARNETT — Imagine the smell of baked bread, then beer.
That’s the air at the East Kansas Agri-Energy ethanol plant, which Gov. Laura Kelly was in Garnett to tour on Wednesday.
Flanked by representatives from the corn industry, Kelly got a close look at massive silos, sophisticated monitoring equipment and conveyor belts brimming with grains and mash.
The governor took especial interest in the portion of the plant that produces renewable diesel fuel, which East Kansas Agri-Energy (EKAE) ships to places like Washington, California and Canada.
“I learned a lot this morning,” Kelly said, and remarked on how much the ethanol industry had changed since she’d last been inside a production facility.
Each year, EKAE produces more than a million gallons of renewable, clean-burning ethanol, over 270,000 tons of livestock feed distillers grain and 12 million pounds of corn oil from more than 16 million bushels of locally sourced corn.
The EKAE plant staff now includes over 50 people working toward a more sustainable future through the production of renewable energy.
During the tour of plant facilities, EKAE president and CEO, Bill Pracht, didn’t mince words.
He told Gov. Kelly that “we’ve been through three years of hell, profit-wise,” but it appears things are now looking up.
“We had our best month in three years just last month,” Pracht said.
Why is that exactly?
“Corn went way up in price,” he explained, “and ethanol followed it, which is what it usually does.”
The price of corn had dropped about a dollar since last Friday, but Pracht said that this is part and parcel of a volatile commodities market.
“It’s part of a commodity business,” he said. “The uncertainty takes getting used to.”
Pracht also spoke with Kelly about sustainability and using ethanol to “bridge the gap” from fossil fuels to a more environmentally friendly future.
“From you, what we’d like to see is ethanol as part of that [bridging] process, … we’ve proven it in terms of what we can do in terms of air quality,” he said.
In response, Kelly noted that her administration was indeed behind the industry, and intimated that she and others would continue to provide support.
During the brief time she had for questions, this Register reporter asked Gov. Kelly what she’d taken away from having now toured multiple industrial sites in southeast Kansas, and what that might mean for economic development in this corner of the state.
“I think things like visiting the Monarch plant, visiting [East Kansas Agri-Energy], and seeing what’s already going on in rural Kansas,” Kelly said, “it informs the administration on what’s possible and really opens the door for us to be creative and think about ways we can partner with already established businesses within our rural communities.”
“That’s why we started the Office of Rural Prosperity,” she added, “which is a grassroots building up from ‘what is’ to make it into ‘what we can do.’”
The governor called the team at EKAE “incredibly innovative,” and emphasized that “knowing the plant exists, and others like it exist, will inform the Department of Commerce and others going forward.”
When asked what her highest priorities were now that the current legislative session is winding down, Kelly didn’t hesitate.
“Take a vacation!” she laughed.
After recomposing herself, Kelly said “I ran as the education governor, and people know I’m very concerned about children and families.”
And indeed, until recently, how education would be funded in Kansas moving forward was somewhat up for grabs.
On this point, Kelly elaborated that “I also recognize that the only way we can provide the education we want for our kids, provide a safety net for folks, is that we have to have a very robust and broad-based business environment, with lots of Kansans working, lots of companies coming to Kansas and lots of companies in Kansas growing.”
“That’s what we need in order to be the state we want to be,” she said, “which is to have the best education system, the best health care system … be the very best place to live.”