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Merle Anderson of Grand Forks, N.D., receives the Meritorious Service Award, the highest honor from the National Farmers Union. (Mikkel Pates/Agweek)

Pushing ethanol at 95

We are all living off others' investments.

One of the towering ag leaders for the region is Merle Anderson of Grand Forks, N.D., 95, who spent the bulk of his career operating a farm near Climax, Minn. From 1970 to 1971, he served as president of the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association (now the Northern Plains Potato Growers).

One of Anderson's biggest passions is ethanol.

In March, the National Farmers Union announced that Anderson would be one of three national recipients of the organization's highest honor — the Meritorious Service Award. It's an award that has gone to U.S. senators and congressmen, even a former U.S. president.

Anderson was unable to make the trip to San Diego for the award, so top NFU officials and presidents of state farmers unions from the region brought the award to him — making the presentation at the Parkwood Senior Living where he lives. National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson presented the award to Anderson, along with NFU state presidents from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Of course, Anderson has received just about every honor in the book. He is chairman emeritus of the board of directors for the American Coalition for Ethanol, an organization he founded in 1987 to promote policies friendly to ethanol. Various well-wishers from ACE were there, including Orrie Swayze, 73, a Wilmot, S.D., farmer and ethanol champion — often a partner in efforts with Anderson. Anderson and Swayze somehow turned the award presentation into a promotion for their next big idea for ethanol — E30.

E30 is a 30 percent blend of ethanol to expand the markets of ethanol, primarily from corn. Swayze and others, including Glacial Lakes Energy LLC of Watertown, S.D., have been promoting the concept of upping the ethanol count in fuel from the common E10 or E15 levels to E30. Everyone at Anderson's party received a blue ball cap emblazoned with "E30: My fuel of choice."

E30 is what some ethanol promoters consider a "long reach." They either have to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to change policies to make them more friendly to E30, or they have to find money to sue the EPA to accomplish the same thing.

Impossible? I wouldn't count Anderson or Swayze out. For decades they've been about three steps ahead of their time.

When corn prices were in the tank in the 1980s, Anderson worked with congressional powerhouses like Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to move ahead with it as a value-added concept for the region. In the 1990s, he was one of the proponents of establishing the "Minnesota Miracle" of ethanol mandates for that state. Minnesota subsidies for farmer-owned cooperatives started a multi-billion industry, often involving farmer-owned cooperatives whose markets eventually were assured and stabilized by national Renewable Fuel Standards.

Ironically, Anderson never grew a bushel of corn on his Climax, Minn., farm, although his son-in-law now grows it.

"What did he have to gain from ethanol to offset his investment of time, work and travel," Johnson asks, rhetorically. "He did it because he thought it was the right kind of thing to do. He thought that better off the ag economy was, the better off everyone was."

And that's how meritorious service is defined.