Friday, August 25, 2006

Polk Salad Annie

There lived a girl that I swear to the world,
Made alligators look tame.
Polk Salad Annie, everybody said it was a shame,
Cause her mama was working on a chain gang.
Everyday ‘fore supper time
She’d go down by the truck patch
and pick her a mess o’ Polk salad,
And carry it home in a tote sack.
Tony Joe White

In the rural South the poor were familiar with “Polk Salad” made from a turnip-like green plant called pokeweed that grows wild in the woods. (No explanation for the discrepancy in the spelling - polk vs. poke.) While some Southerners still boil or fry the large leaves in bacon grease and eat it with corn bread, it is largely considered a food of the last resort as it contains some chemicals toxic to mammals.

Elvis Presley recorded Polk Salad Annie but it is unknown if he dined on the greens. We are all going to be singing Tony Joe White’s popular song over our salad bowl if the corn growers continue with their plan to promote corn as the exclusive feed stock in ethanol plants.

The Renewable Fuels Association reports that there are 101 ethanol biorefineries in operation in the U.S. with total capacity of 4,830 million gallons per year (MGY). Another 2,880 MGY could come on line through 42 new plants and 7 plant expansions currently under construction.

Only fifteen of these 150 these plants use or plan to use any other feed stock other than corn [Archer Daniels Midland (ADM: NYSE) Wallhalla, ND uses barley) and Land O’Lakes, Inc. uses cheese whey.]. Several in the group of fifteen actually plan to use “waste beer” (Merrick & Co. uses waste beer from Coors Brewery in Golden, CO). We learned recently that one of the major oil companies is supporting a proposed ethanol plant in Idaho that will use potatoes.

If the ethanol producers don’t take the corn muffin out of your mouth on the way into work in the morning, they will grab the beer and chips out of your hand on the way home!

A Cornell University agriculture expert, David Pimental, has been highly critical of the use of corn for ethanol production. Some of his calculations are discussed by Health and Home. The Earth Policy Institute and the Energy Bulletin provide analysis equally critical of food-for-fuel. Pimental’s work is soundly debunked by the Corn Growers Association, which has its own calculations based in part on the federal subsidies for ethanol. When you read either argument it makes sense, leaving one wonder where the truth lies.

One point made by Pimental provides a good clue. Ethanol producers use fossil fuel sources to power their plants, because ethanol is too expensive under the current production configuration! This likely means that corn-based ethanol is too expensive for car owners too.

There will be more next week on some alternatives for bio-fuel investors that should also please both corn muffin fans and beer drinkers. In the meantime, please also look at my August 22, 2006 post Adventures in Wonderland for more on ethanol production and investment issues.

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