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Personal perspective: Pack a power lunch

Agriculture.com Staff 10/28/2006 @ 7:33pm

Ethanol plants are sprouting up everywhere. Prime-time TV ads tout the value of distillers' grain as cattle feed.

In the midst of all this buzz, it's easy to forget ethanol's humble start-up as gasohol. It's even easier to overlook the role women played in jump-starting it. More than 25 years ago, Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE) displayed an alcohol still at its national convention in Texas. Made from a pressure cooker, it produced 2 gallons of alcohol three times daily.

The women pointed out that if they could make alcohol in a kitchen, it was a feasible source of farm fuel.

The recipe appeared in this column, with a caution: "Don't mix it in your home, or you may find -- as a Texas woman did -- your family won't come home at night because of the odor."

In 1977, WIFE organized a convoy of 17 cars and one bus that traveled from Montana to Washington, D.C., powered by ethanol.

WIFE featured a car fueled by alcohol -- courtesy of the Washington Gasohol Commission-- at their 1981 Spokane convention.The photo at right was in Denver in 1987, advocating a market blend to stop CO pollution.

As early as 1980, WIFE was extolling ethanol by-products. Shirley Ball, Nashua, Montana, shared a recipe for bars made with distillers' dried grain solids. She said, "After you obtain alcohol from grain, there's still a good, high-protein food product available."

WIFE took its Food and Fuel campaign to Washington, D.C. They shipped food made with distillers' grain and packed frozen samples in their suitcases. Arriving at midnight, they stopped at an all-night grocery store. Then they prepared more samples in the hotel kitchen until 3:30 a.m., got up at 5:30 a.m., and made two presentations. It was a power lunch!

Over the years, ethanol has confronted major political obstacles. It's proved to have more lives than the proverbial cat. Survival has hinged on the staying power of ag producers.

"We hoped these things would have happened six months after we left Washington in 1977," says Pat Torgenson, Lambert, Montana.

But the time wasn't right. A book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference explains how leaders and groups create a critical mass of positive action that seems to spark dramatic change overnight. But it all starts with small steps, over time, initiated by individuals passionate about their goals. Of course, WIFE had help and support from other groups. But these women deserve much credit.

Rising energy prices, Clean Air amendments, and the Iraq war re-framed the way we think about the world. Thanks to the cumulative efforts of WIFE and other groups, ethanol was positioned to take off.

Ethanol isn't the sole answer to energy problems, and farmers will struggle to remain in control. But it illustrates the tipping-point concept. Farmers can powerfully influence others by a compelling message, focused efforts, and a conviction that change is possible, despite the odds.

Other ag issues merit the same persistence. And don't be surprised if you look back in 30 years and find the groundwork for success was laid by women dishing up a power lunch.

Ethanol plants are sprouting up everywhere. Prime-time TV ads tout the value of distillers' grain as cattle feed.

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