A tractor trailer rig rumbles into the Tall Corn Ethanol plant. Corn pours from openings in its belly to bins underground, where conveyor belts and buckets haul it to gleaming steel silos rising 13 stories above the Iowa plains.
The 40-acre distillery turns corn into alcohol in quantities that would make a moonshiner drool. Instead of white lightnin', the brew is converted to ethanol, a fuel that makes money for farmers and is seen as a possible solution to today's high oil and gas prices.
Like the other modern-day stills dotting the Midwestern landscape, the Coon Rapids plant reached capacity soon after opening - within 12 days, to be precise.
Ethanol production in the United States is growing so quickly that for the first time, farmers expect to sell as much corn this year to ethanol plants as they do overseas.
"It's the most stunning development in agricultural markets today - I can't think of anything else quite like this," says Keith Collins, the U.S. Agriculture Department's chief economist.
The amount of corn used for ethanol, estimated at 2.15 billion bushels this year, would amount to about 20 percent of the nation's entire crop, according to department projections.
Even as ethanol devours corn and pushes prices higher, the president and Congress are calling for even greater ethanol use. Wall Street cannot seem to get enough of ethanol-related investments. Automakers are speeding ethanol-capable vehicles onto the road.
"When the price of anything gets high enough, then all kinds of substitutes come out of the closet," Collins said. "That's what's going on now. As long as the price of oil stays high, where ethanol is profitable, this industry is going to keep growing."
In the past, many people have claimed that it will take several decades to get an infrastructure for alternative fuels in working order. This seems to be one of the arguments that proponents of the peak oil doomsday scenario are very fond of.
I don't believe it. It's all happening way faster. As you can see by reading this article, the transition is happening right now!