Supporting farmers, making fuel: After early skepticism, Red Trail Energy ethanol plant in Richardton is going strong

RICHARDTON -- Instead of extracting oil from the ground, one energy business in western North Dakota is using corn grown atop it to produce fuel. The Red Trail Energy plant in Richardton opened in 2007. It didn't make complete sense then -- it wa...

Press Photos by Katherine Lymn Red Trail Energy’s Chris Kline takes a sample of corn being converted into ethanol during one step of the process on Wednesday. The Richardton plant produces about 55 million gallons of the fuel each year.

RICHARDTON - Instead of extracting oil from the ground, one energy business in western North Dakota is using corn grown atop it to produce fuel.
The Red Trail Energy plant in Richardton opened in 2007. It didn’t make complete sense then - it was an ethanol plant in an area without corn. The original plan was to rail it in.
Those days, the plant “had to support someone else’s farmers,” said Chris Kline, (title) for the plant.
Now, Red Trail supports the local community.
With advances in crop genetics and agricultural business changes, farmers within about a 200-mile radius now sell enough corn to run the facility, which operates on about 20 million bushels a year.
The plant also produces byproducts corn oil and cattle feed, and some farmers both sell corn to the plant and buy feed from it.
“They support us,” Kline said, “we support them.”
About 23 percent of revenues come from those byproducts.
Farmer Ambrose Hoff, who founded Stone Mill Inc. just across Interstate 94 from Red Trail, said he sells corn to the plant.
“They need our corn and we need their business,” he said.
The process to convert corn into liquid fuel that gets hauled out on the company’s two locomotives includes pulverizing the corn into a powder, fermenting it and distilling it down.
The plant produces 55 million gallons of ethanol a year.
With increased rail traffic and weather causing train delays, Red Trail has also served as a place for farmers to sell corn when elevators are full awaiting pickup, Kline said.
The 24/7 plant, which operates every day except for a maintenance day each year, doesn’t stop producing and “making room,” he said.
Loading employees are local to the Richardton area, and operations and maintenance staff, like Kline, come mostly from Bismarck and Mandan, he said.
The Red Trail plant is on the northwestern edge of a big chunk of corn belt plants.
Because of federal mandate, ethanol is used throughout the U.S., and Red Trail provides ethanol specifically to North Dakota, Montana and the West Coast, Kline said.
The plant employs up to 20 employees during daytime operations, and can operate with as few as four people there overnight.
“The nice thing about our company being a small company is we tend to attract people that actually want to be in this industry,” Kline said.
Looking ahead The plant will continue providing another outlet for farmers that would otherwise wait days or weeks for trains to come and empty elevators.
Were it not for the plant, farmers would be devastated by the train delays, said Gerald Bachmeier, CEO of the plant.
Down the line, the plant will also switch from running on coal to natural gas - “due to the abundance” and flaring it causes in oilfields, Kline said.
Hoff, who helped build the plant, said the area has embraced Red Trail after early skepticism.
“When we first built it people thought we were crazy” because of the lack of corn in the area, he said.
But it’s all worked out, he said.
“We are now in corn country.”

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