CLAREMONT — A group of Owatonna High School students got an in-depth look at a possible career in agribusiness Friday when their Agriculture Explorations class visited Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont.
The students got a bus tour of the ethanol plant, which processes up to 50,000 bushels of corn each day, with Al-Corn Compliance Manager Henry Blair serving as their guide. Blair explained the nuts and bolts of the distillation process and handed out samples of the ethanol, high-protein animal feed, corn oil and other products cranked out at the plant.
Al-Corn CEO Randall Doyal said the cooperative is pleased to show students a look inside the $4 billion Minnesota renewable fuels industry.
“Science plays a very important role in ethanol production, and tours like this give students a first-hand look at how clean Minnesota-grown renewable energy is produced,” he said.
Blair answered questions about the mileage and performance of ethanol fuels and the skills needed to work at ethanol plants such as Al-Corn.
“One of the biggest things is the trouble-shooting ability,” he said. “A lot of the day-to-day stuff is honestly very easy. Where the real value comes in is the ability to troubleshoot, follow a pipe from point A to point B, which sounds easy but is surprisingly more difficult in practice.”
Blair has a chemical engineering degree, but said there are a variety of education paths that can lead to the same place.
“It’s very learnable on the job,” he said. “The Building and Utilities Maintenance [degrees] through the tech schools, and a lot of guys come out with their boiler licenses, that’s a good basis there.”
Owatonna High School agriculture teacher Elizabeth Tinaglia said the students, who range from 9th to 12th grades, could connect what they learned at the plant with a number of lessons they’d learned in different classes.
“We’re actually doing a unit right now on renewable fuels, so it’s perfect,” she said.
The trip was organized as part of a grant program by the Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association. Communications and Education Coordinator Ashwin Raman joined the students for the tour and told them ethanol supports workers all around southern Minnesota.
“It’s homegrown and it’s clean and it’s green,” Raman said. “And as you can see from plants like Al-Corn, ethanol has boosted the economy of rural Minnesota and other states like it. … It’s estimated that in the entire country, there’s about half a million people whose jobs are affected or depend on ethanol.”