Crews scrambled to make repairs this week near the busiest lock on the Mississippi River. Workers closed Lock 27 north of St. Louis last weekend after a protection cell — a vertical, rock-filled steel cylinder which helps guide barges into the lock — had ruptured, spilling tons of debris into the channel.
According to the Coast Guard, nearly five dozen tugboats and more than 400 barges — carrying enough cargo to fill 23,000 semi-trailers — were caught in the logjam Wednesday.
With the annual rite of harvest well underway in the Grain Belt, the traffic jam could complicate matters in an agricultural sector that is already dealing with record-breaking drought.
More than half of America’s grain that goes for export passes through Lock 27. Smaller portions of the U.S. corn crop are consumed closer to home – either by hungry cattle or the local ethanol plant. And a tiny portion makes its way to the Mighty Mississippi, but NOT to travel downstream. Paul Yeager explains.
Corn is, by far, America’s most abundant grain. Despite the worst drought in half a century, U.S. farmers will produce an estimated 10.7 billion bushels this fall. And while soybeans also are ubiquitous in Iowa, you can’t swing a dead cat in the nation’s top corn-producing state and not hit a cornfield.
All that corn eventually heads to market, bound for consumers all over the world, where the commodity is highly valued for food, feed or fuel.
On the fuel side of that equation, the Agriculture Department estimates that up to 40 percent of this year’s harvest is bound for ethanol production. But some Iowa farmers are distilling their corn into an entirely different form of grain alcohol.
Ryan Burchett, Mississippi River Distilling Company: “We have got grain as far as the eye can see and I tell everyone it is the ultimate form of value-added agriculture because you take five dollars of corn that we make ten dollars of ethanol and make it into 50 dollars of whiskey. So, you know get it out there. Let's use it.”
That value-added approach embodies the eastern Iowa-based Mississippi River Distilling Company. Brothers Garrett and Ryan Burchett built their operation primarily to tap into the tourism opportunity, by showing visitors all aspects of the business.
But they realized when the operation was in its infancy, they might also be able to capitalize on the growing local food movement.
Ryan Burchett, MRDC: “It is all about trying to be as close to home as possible and we showcase that in the products that we make. The batch notes that we do where people can find out where their bottle came from and everything - even we showcase local art in the tasting room.”
The labels may be the designed down the street, but Mississippi River Distilling’s primary raw ingredient best exemplifies its commitment a key raw material ingredients for the distillery---corn--- is also homegrown.
Ryan Clark/Scott County, Iowa Grain Farmer: “I never thought I’d have a part in that. We had the opportunity come to us and we jumped on it.”
Ryan Clark farms about 1,000 acres with his family near LeClaire, Iowa. The majority of his harvest – and about 60 percent of America’s corn -- typically, flows down the Mighty Mississippi to consumers overseas. The balance of his production, historically, was fed to livestock. But as one of three corn suppliers for Mississippi River Distilling, he also enjoys a third market.
Ryan Clark, Scott County, Iowa, Grain Farmer: “I was excited about it. My wife and I always tried to support local industry, and support anything going on. When they came to us and told us what their idea was of using local corn, we thought that was a great idea, we knew it wasn’t a huge market, but with the majority of the corn leaving the country, it was exciting to know some of it was going to be used not only here in the United States, but right in our own home town.”
Ryan Burchett, MRDC: “When we first opened one our farmers came down here and he tried the vodka and he said my corn is in this? And I said yeah. And he says I think this is the first time I have ever known where it ended up.” Well, each batch uses about 25 bushels. We probably will use somewhere around 2000 bushels of corn this year. Each pound or each bottle that we make has about a pound and a half to 2 pounds of grain.”
All told, Mississippi River Distilling will use about two semi-loads of corn each year. The Burchett’s take regular deliveries of the grain and pay growers the market price.
The operation also uses locally grown wheat, barley and rye and distills them into vodka, gin and whiskey.
The value-added business benefits from a steady stream of tourists who learn the intricacies – and intrigue -- of grain alcohol production. Anything bearing the Mississippi River Distilling label is produced in small batches according to strict protocols. And, since selling the booze often proves to be just as demanding, a major hurdle lies in marketing.
Ryan Burchett: “I think the biggest challenge for us is just getting word out that we're here. It is still a young enough industry and people are very brand loyal when it comes to their booze and getting them to step out of the box and try something different and realize that there are products that are made locally that aren't just as good but in many cases better than what they might typically get from a bottle that has come from a giant factory.”
Mississippi River Distilling has fared well in several national contests. Hardware is starting to pile up, adding credibility to the upstart company.
And, while the burgeoning Iowa wine industry may have seemed a bit out of place a decade ago, the “Tall Corn State” seems like a natural location to grow a spirit revolution.
Ryan Burchett, MRDC: “We don't really grow grapes around here regularly, but we grow some of the finest grain in the world and vodka and whiskey and all these are made from grain. So, why not be taking this stuff and making it into some spirits. We are on par with what is going on out there. And I would argue that our quality is even better because of the handcrafted steps that we take to really get that clean, smooth product.”
Iowa’s wine industry first was given a boost by lawmakers. Then came legislation advancing beer brewers.
The spirit industry, and specifically, micro-distilleries, also have benefitted from law changes allowing retail sales or tastings at the production plant. point of manufacture of hard liquor.
Ryan Burchett, MRDC: “They changed that law so that if you came here to see us you could try a little bit of the spirit and you could take a couple bottles with you if you like. And so if we didn't have that we wouldn't be here.”
That opened the door for tourism, which continues to play a vital role in Mississippi River Distillery’s business model.
Burchett says relaxed federal and state taxes on distilleries may not be politically popular right now, but the move paved the way for expansion.
The state of Iowa’s Alcohol and Beverage Division helps distribute Mississippi River Distillery goods statewide. But Burchett’s plans include a wider, “Corn Belt” footprint for his products.
Ryan Burchett, MRDC: “Our vision is to be a little bit bigger --- distillery. If we get too big we can't do the things that make our product special. The handcrafting and everything that we do. So, we are really concentrating on the Midwest where there is a connection to the Mississippi River or a connection to agriculture the things that we do.”
Tourists already flock to LeClaire to visit the home of cable television’s “American Pickers.” And Burchett hopes the travelers stop in and pick up a bottle or two of booze as well. For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.