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Biofuels council's call for policies increasing ethanol music to Minnesota corn farmers' ears
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A newly released report from Gov. Tim Walz’s Council on Biofuels is calling for state leaders to embrace policy shifts that would keep Minnesota a nationwide leader in biofuels.

In the last few years, increased ethanol consumption has been a boon for Minnesota's rural economy. According to the MCGA, the state’s ethanol industry currently supports more than 20,000 full-time jobs and generates more than $1.7 billion in income annually. Many area farmers sell part of their corn stock each year to the Al-Corn Clean Fuel plant in Claremont or Guardian Energy in Janesville. Both plants are particularly large, with the capacity to produce more than 100 million gallons of ethanol each year.

The ethanol industry was battered earlier this year by low oil prices amid the global pandemic, coupled with an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. For a period of time, the Janesville plant shut down altogether, while Al-Corn operated at a fraction of its capacity. That set the stage for a stunning rebound, with prices hitting record highs mere months after reaching record lows. Al-Corn CEO Randall Doyal expressed hope that if legislators take the Council's recommendations seriously and work towards implementing, the market for ethanol could continue to improve.

"I’m hoping they listen to the recommendations, consider them thoughtfully and see what they can get done," he said. "I'd like to see us set the standard for the nation."

Last year, Walz charged a 15-member group of biofuel and ag experts across the state with developing the report as a way to provide a roadmap for state policy. As congressman for the largely rural 1st Congressional District and now as governor, Walz has long championed biofuels.

“I am a longtime supporter of biofuels because they are good for both our environment and our economy,” Walz said in a prepared statement. “A strong biofuels industry in Minnesota not only provides good-paying jobs and helps our economy grow, but it also aids in reducing harmful greenhouse gases.”

The governor’s report calls for Minnesota to become the first state in the nation to embrace E-15 as the state standard. A bill to do just that was introduced in the legislature earlier this year and enjoyed bipartisan support, but did not pass.

"(E-15) is good for the environment, and from a farmers perspective it enhances our (market) options and supports prices," said Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read. "It’s a win-win."

Thanks to lobbying from the state’s large agriculture industry, Minnesota has long been a leader in biofuels. Supporters of E-15 argue it’s a continuation of the state’s effort to promote E-10 fuels, which also led the nation when it was first implemented but is now the national standard.

E-15 has been commonly sold at Minnesota gas stations since 2018, when the Environmental Protection Agency repealed a regulation that barred the fuel from being sold during the summer months due to concerns about smog.

Since the repeal, the amount of E-15 gasoline sold has skyrocketed, nowhere more than in Minnesota. According to the MCGA, 350 gas stations around the state carry the product and last year Minnesota drivers pumped more than 70 million gallons of it.

To campaign for an E-15 fuel standard, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association launched its “Better Fuel Initiative.” Former Corn Growers Association President Brian Thalmann said that more ethanol use wouldn’t only be of benefit to Minnesota farmers.

“Ag is particularly interested in a higher ethanol blend, but it also offers benefits to the consumer and environment,” he said.

According to an analysis from the United States Department of Agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions for corn-based ethanol are about 40% lower than for traditional gasoline. However, environmentalists have raised concerns that ethanol can increase air pollution and smog.

Adopting a low carbon fuel standard is also listed as a major priority. That would establish a working group to prioritize reducing emissions within the transportation sector, which have remained stubbornly high even as other sectors have reduced emissions.

“Done correctly, (the standard) would give credit where credit is due to a product like ethanol that does hold those properties,” Thalmann said.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Deputy Commissioner Andrea Vaubel said that the standard would benefit the ethanol market substantially and immediately, because nearly all new vehicles are equipped to handle at least E-15.

Developing advanced biofuels that are powerful and cleaner than today’s ethanol is also listed as a priority in the report. It particularly highlights the potential to use woody feedstocks as biofuels, improving forest health in addition to cleaner burning fuel.

Finally, the state pledges to join with other institutions to market biofuel use, including the Renewable Fuels Association and Industry groups. The report also calls on the state to “walk the walk” by purchasing more vehicles that can run on E-85.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said he had reviewed the report and is eager to work on implementing its recommendations. He expressed particular support for the low carbon standard, which could incentivize farmers to implement best conservation practices.

A member of the House’s Climate Action Caucus, is one of just a handful of DFL legislators remaining in rural Minnesota. He said that he’s optimistic that biofuels can win support from both DFLers and Republicans, if for different reasons.

“When it comes to policy, this is a place we can work together as Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “Republicans see it as important to ag, while Democrats see it as an important bridge to the electrification of the transportation system.”

Homegrown business, Trystar, looks to expand with acquisition of Kentucky competitor
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A rapidly growing Faribault-based company is hoping to expand its reach further and provide more comprehensive solutions for customers after acquiring a Kentucky-based company.

Trystar announced on Thursday that it had acquired Kentucky-based Load Banks Direct, a manufacturer of high capacity load banks used to test emergency power systems, such as those Trystar manufactures.

At this point, no financial details of the purchase have been released, but Load Banks Direct President Martin Glover will stay on to help with a “new chapter” of the business. Trystar CEO AJ Smith said there are no plans to move Load Banks Direct’s operations out of Kentucky.

Public records from the Commonwealth of Kentucky indicate that Load Banks Direct was first organized as a Foreign Limited Liability Company in the state in 2012. It’s significantly smaller than Trystar, which boasts up to 200 employees at its Faribault facility during peak times.

Trystar provides products both for commercial and emergency services purposes. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company has lost much of the commercial side of its business, but that’s more than been made up for by a spike in demand on the emergency services side.

Founded in 1992 by Rick Dahl, Trystar has become a cornerstone of the local economy in recent years. With a reputation for quality and an ability to get its products to customers in a timely fashion, it won devoted customers from all over the world. As it grew, Trystar struggled to find space to accommodate its needs. By the time Dahl sold his company to Goldner Hawn Johnson & Morrison, operations were inefficiently spread out over five facilities in north Faribault’s industrial park.

The Twin Cities-based equity firm quickly brought in Smith, a former Honeywell executive, to run Trystar, and he focused on finding a more suitable space. Building codes prevented Trystar from expanding existing facilities, but suitable locations in Burnsville and Lakeville were found.

A 100,000-square foot warehouse constructed by Trystar’s longtime construction partner Met-Con was also identified as a potential landing spot, but it was more expensive than other options. To cover the difference, Faribault and Rice County agreed to a sizable tax abatement package.

Having addressed its space needs, Trystar began to focus on implementing other aspects of its strategic plan. Smith said that a core component of the plan was to offer additional services for customers that it was not currently capable of providing on its own.

“We’ve got aspirations to do a lot of different things,” he said. “Far more than we can just do on our own.”

Smith noted that the two companies had long shared clients, ranging from hospitals to schools to hotels. Over the years, Load Banks Direct’s products have been plugged into Trystar’s thousands of times.

By acquiring Load Banks Direct, Smith said that Trystar will be able to reach the company’s sizable customer base and work on new products and technologies, utilizing the extensive but differing technical knowledge of both companies.

Smith said that the shared culture between the two companies made the purchase a particularly sound fit. Perhaps the most central priority that the two companies share is commitment to finding customer-specific solutions.

Smith said that the shared commitment of Trystar and Load Banks Direct to finding custom solutions helps both to stand out in their industries. In addition, he boasted that both companies have distinguished themselves by offering cutting edge technology.

“If you look at their products against the competition, you can tell that Trystar and Load Banks Direct make the best products,” he said.

Tiger Woods chips to the first green during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Second long-term care center sees COVID outbreak
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COVID-19 cases continue to rapidly increase in Rice County as the entire state and nation sees a dangerous increase in cases and virus-related deaths.

In Northfield, where the number of those testing positive for COVID (506 as of Thursday) were about a third of Faribault’s 1,586, two long-term care facilities in the college city are dealing with outbreaks.

This week, 76 Three Links Care Center staff and residents tested positive for the virus.

Three Northfield Hospital and Clinics Long Term Care Center staff reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday. In a release from Northfield Hospital, it noted that the three cases were the first positives at the Center and are considered part of routine weekly testing for all center staff, based on requirements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which governs skilled nursing facilities. No residents from the facility have tested positive or experienced symptoms of the virus.

NH+C is expected to begin testing all Long Term Care Center staff within a 24-hour period starting Monday, with repeat testing every seven days until reaching 14 days with no positive test results.

According to Thursday’s report from the Minnesota Department of Health, 82 additional Rice County residents positive for COVID-19; one additional death was reported. Across the state, 7,228 newly-reported cases, the most reported during the pandemic, were listed along with 39 deaths, the second-highest figure. Fifty nine were reported as having died from the virus during the previous 24 hours.

As communities all over the country experience outbreaks in recent weeks, Minnesota ranks ninth in the country for new cases per capita with 982.4 new cases per 100,000 people in Minnesota over the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

According to Rice County Public Health, 481 positive COVID-19 tests were reported within the county during the week of Nov. 1-7, more than double the 178 from Oct. 25-31. Those numbers have been rising since Oct. 11-17, when 80 were reported. Between Oct. 25-Nov. 7, the county’s 14-day case rate was 100.21, more than double the state recommended case rate of 50. When counties hit a case rate of 50 per 10,000, it’s recommended that schools shift exclusively to distance learning.

Three districts with schools in Rice County Tri-City United, Faribault Public Schools and Northfield Public Schools announced this week that they will shift to distance learning before Thanksgiving. Students as parochial school, Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, have been distance learning since Wednesday. They return to class Nov. 30.

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Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst noted keeping COVID-19 cases out of long-term care facilities is difficult because of the high number of asymptomatic people who are spreading the virus and the ease with which the disease spreads in congregate settings. She said any care facility with at least one COVID-19 case is given an MDH case manager who ensures necessary steps are taken to minimize resident and staff risk. Purfeerst expects the introduction of a vaccine will help prevent staff and residents from spreading the virus.

Purfeerst said she supports Gov. Tim Walz’s restrictions on bars, restaurants and gatherings to slow the spread of the pandemic, especially with the toll the virus is having on hospital staffing levels due to COVID-19 exposure.

“I know for many people it’s unfortunate that maybe they’re seeing the more dialed back restrictions, but it’s what we need to do to control the spread of the virus,” she said. “It’s not easy. It’s a hard decision, and I understand that it affects what people can do.”

Purfeerst has said that increases in positive tests and deaths from the virus across the state are expected as more people spend time indoors due to colder weather. At the same time, she noted COVID-19 testing indicated Rice County was in a slightly better position in combating the virus than comparable areas. Still, she said it was most important that follow existing guidelines to combat the spread of the virus, including minimizing close contact with others, quarantining for 14 days following a positive test, and isolating after being exposed to the virus.

NH+C President and CEO Steve Underdahl noted the health system is seeing an increase in people with COVID-19 symptoms in its clinics and Emergency Department, plus an increase in patients who need to be hospitalized. Most recently COVID-19 patients were seen as making up, on average, one-third to one-half of patients in Northfield Hospital.

Underdahl deemed the increase “manageable,” but said at some point it will make it harder to take more hospital patients. He said most local COVID-19 cases are caused by community spread, often from people who don’t have symptoms.

Continued rise

The continued case growth has state officials and health care workers concerned about hospital capacity as hospitalizations due to complications from the virus typically follow an increase in cases. According to the health department’s online dashboard, 1,075 intensive care beds out of 1,387 statewide are in use by patients suffering from COVID-19 and those with other ailments, though there are 408 beds that can be made ready for use in 72 hours.

There are 1,299 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 related symptoms, according to The COVID Tracking Project.