Long-term investments by corn growers in research and product development are about to pay off big time.

Cargill Dow Polymers, LLC, broke ground on a $300 million polymers plant, at Blair, in southeastern Nebraska. The company is a joint venture formed by Cargill, Inc., and Dow Chemicals and plans to have the plant on stream late in 2001. The new plant will utilize some 14 million bushels of corn per year, to produce 140,000 tons of polylactic acid, used in plastics and textiles.

"We have believed for years that making biodegradable plastics could create a huge new demand for corn," said Gary Marshall, chief executive officer of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council (MCMC). "In fact, MCMC was the first to invest corn grower checkoff dollars in biodegradable research."

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Gene Iannotti and a team of researchers, at the University of Missouri, with funding largely from corn growers, took the lead in such research. An early application resulted in biodegradable garbage bags, produced from a combination of corn starch and petroleum-derives plastics. "At each step in the process from lactic acid to long-chain polymers, there are a lot of options; a lot of potential products," said Iannotti. "Cargill has an excellent team of polymer scientists; they will undoubtedly pursue a lot of different products, including many that interest medical science."

Perhaps of equal importance, products made from polylactic acid break down to substances readily utilized by bacteria, Iannotti added. When on-line, the Cargill Dow Polymer plant will generate a daily demand for 40,000 bushels of corn. That is a market boost for growers in the four-state region (Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas). "We probably would not haul any corn there," said Sam Creed, Fairfax, "but the Blair plant will improve our basis here."

In the current market, anything that results in disappearance of corn from the huge supplies on hand should help prices everywhere. At the same time, petroleum (the major feedstock for conventional plastics) prices are at all-time highs, which should bolster demand for plastics made from renewable sources.

"We are excited that the corn checkoff has done exactly what it was created to do: fund research to create new products and new markets for our corn," said Marshall. "Essentially, anything produced from petroleum also can be produced from plants. The key is feasibility, and that is what grower-funded research is designed to help prove."

The Missouri Corn Merchandising Council is a producer-elected organization of corn growers dedicated to the profitability of corn production by investing checkoff dollars in development and expansion of corn markets, facilitating communication with growers and customers and utilization research. For more information, visit Missouri Corn Online, at www.mocorn.org.

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