YORK – What is happening behind closed doors at the Green Plains alcohol distilling plant east of York?
A whole lot.
The plant, managed for approaching a decade by 26-year veteran staff member Mitch Stuhr, has parlayed itself into the role of a major national supplier of high-grade alcohol to the COVID-19 hand sanitizer industry.
Largely as a result all of the approximately 50 employees of the production plant, plus a few more in an attached group of researchers, are employed, thriving and bucking the global jobs trend.
It is a positive story for York in the midst of a still growing pandemic.
Stuhr said the plant has gone through a number of transformations over time, including addition of beverage grade alcohol from 1997 until 2001 at which time that specialty distilling unit was sent to another plant.
Those who, like this writer, assumed York’s product went into fuel as an additive are wrong.
Stuhr explained there are various grades of alcohol based almost entirely upon purity. The least pure, he said, is fuel grade. The York plant, to the contrary, has churned out industrial grade alcohol “nonstop for the past three years.”
Industrial alcohol is much purer than fuel grade but slightly less so than the beverage product used for human consumption in vodka, as one example.
Prior to the virus outbreak, he said, all of the plant’s production was exported out of the country for a variety of uses.
“Now,” he said, the 199-proof alcohol, “is all distributed domestically” to 20 states and Canada as a direct result of demand from hand sanitizer manufacturers.
Ironically, it was in planning discussions as the pandemic evolved that the first lesson was learned.
One of the first items on the checklist, said Stuhr, “Was to stock up on hand sanitizer” but “low and behold we couldn’t find it.”
About that time lab manager Dustin Taylor, “Found a World Health Organization recipe.” Taylor, said Stuhr, “Realized we have all the components” the WHO’s formula required.
“We were approached by Cornhusker State Industries” a private company that employs Nebraska Department of Corrections inmates in a variety of industries, to provide product for its start-up of sanitizer production.
“So, we made that donation,” after which “word got out” about Green Plains. Subsequent donations to similar efforts at the University of Nebraska and the Iowa prison system followed.
Those donations brought the plant very much into the commercial world of sanitizer production and Stuhr’s phone began to ring and ring and ring. “It kind of snowballed from there all over the country,” he said.
It was not uncommon at that time for Stuhr to miss as many as three incoming calls while talking with a single potential customer.
“There is still a lot of interest,” he said, proven by the fact that, today, alcohol is shipped to 20 states and Canada by rail, tanker trucks and aboard traditional semis in containers secured to pallets.
Even with all those customers now on board, “I bet I average 15-20 sample requests a week” from potential new customers.
The economic benefits for staff at the plant are obvious. They go to work every day, secure in their jobs, while millions are unemployed and desperate through no fault of their own.
It goes much further than that, however.
The dozens of mostly independent owner-driver truckers who deliver corn to the plant in belly dump semis or take the alcohol away in tankers have all the work they can handle, too.
Amazingly, Stuhr said only 65 hours lie between when the corn comes in the gate and the distilled product goes back out.
On the average day employees grind 55,000 to 60,000 bushels of corn at the rate of 1,000 bushels per truck.
What happens when the virus finally releases its stranglehold on the world?
Stuhr has every reason to believe the news will continue to be good for the local folks at Green Plains.
“This (sanitizer demand) is opening up some domestic opportunities now” in other industries,” he said. “We’ve got our name out. My hope is this opens up some domestic business … a niche … for us” that will ripple far into the future.