Poet Biorefining

The POET Biorefining plant in Ashton is back to full capacity after being temporarily shut down last spring due to the lack of demand stemming from COVID-19.

ASHTON—When it shut down its Ashton plant and furloughed workers there last spring, POET Biorefining was facing unprecedented uncertainty, but the future is bright after more than a year of doing business in the pandemic.

When the plant was put on idle, it employed 36 people, making it a “key employer” in the area according to Stephanie Neppl, director of the Osceola County Economic Development Commission. Since restarting production in August, the POET plant south of Ashton has hired back workers who had not found a position elsewhere.

“The job openings countywide are substantial, and many businesses want to add more jobs and shifts,” Neppl said. “Finding people who are able and want to work and fill our positions is a big challenge — it was pre-COVID and our unemployment rate is back under 3 percent.”

Doug Berven is the vice president of corporate affairs for POET, based in Sioux Falls, SD. He said the renewable fuels maker cut production in half when the coronavirus hit the region. Travel restrictions and drastic reductions in road use meant there was much less demand for fuels of all kinds.

With an economic rebound well underway, the company has made a near-full recovery with 95 percent of a typical spring season.

“We’re back up and running,” Berven said. “The Ashton plant is actually at full capacity and it’s hiring right now, so that’s good.”

The POET executive also said the consequences of his industry’s downturn were felt in many other sectors critical to N’West Iowa. With less products coming from refineries and less demand to buy products, agriculture was a particularly tough situation.

“With ripple effects of COVID on ethanol, society in general realized how important ethanol production is — not only to the ag community in Iowa and around the country, but to the food industry and a number of different industries,” Berven said. “Getting back on track, we don’t only get back to normal from a transportation standpoint, but from a food, beverage, feed, you-name-it standpoint.”

Ashton was one of three plants POET paused during the nadir of the virus-caused recession. The other two were locations in Chancellor, SD, and Coon Rapids.

Berven said it was an “absolute last resort” and a difficult decision for the company to make.

“It hurts our employees. It hurts farmers. It hurts consumers. It just hurts everybody, you know?” he said, adding it was “an awful feeling.”

The businessman went on to say the heartland’s resilience in the pandemic is a testament to how crucial ag-related work is for national and global systems.

Also, as climate change becomes more of a pressing issue, he said, the world is going to need a robust farm industry.

“Around the country, we really take agriculture for granted a lot,” Berven said. “Going forward, agriculture is going to become even more and more important because agriculture is going to be replacing the older forms of energy. We’re going to get more of our needs from the surface of the land than from the center of the earth.”

Neppl said COVID-19 has been a reminder of how vital local commerce is. Finding hometown solutions to worldwide problems is the best way to protect rural areas such as Ashton.

“I hope people have grown more appreciative for our small businesses and what they add to our communities,” the development director said. “I hope people will continue to think and act local.”

“It was rough going there for a while,” Berven said.

“COVID was a very unique situation for us. It didn’t affect the best or the worst. It affected everybody.”