Governor, business leaders tout potential to grow ‘bio-manufacturing’ industry in Nebraska

Nebraska grows corn with lowest carbon footprint in the country, Pillen says, which is a selling point

By: - August 9, 2023 5:13 pm
Cargill Blair

The sprawling Cargill bio-tech campus near Blair converts corn into several products, including ethanol and sweetener. (Courtesy of Cargill)

KEARNEY — Nebraska is ideally situated to become a hub for the growing bio-manufacturing industry, if it can grow its workforce and meet a rising demand for reducing the carbon footprint of products, those attending the Governor’s Ag and Economic Development Summit were told Wednesday.

Business leaders, along with Gov. Jim Pillen, said that Nebraska provides a dedicated workforce, attractive tax incentives, low-cost utilities, proximity to raw materials like corn and ethanol, and a supportive local governance — where you’re only “a call or two” away from reaching a decision-maker.

 “In Ohio, it was hard to get the mayor to return my call,” said Paul Caldwell, site director of Evonik’s facility in Blair, which extracts omega-3 fatty acids from natural marine algae for animal nutrition.

‘Center of new bio-economy’

Pillen, during a press conference at the summit, which drew about 500 people, said that Nebraska is the “center of the new bio-economy.”

“We raise the lowest carbon footprint ag products in the country,” he said. “The vision is we grow Nebraska industries so we don’t export a kernel of corn.”

“We have to keep it here and keep the value for our families here,” the governor said.

Currently, Nebraska has about 18,000 jobs related to bio-manufacturing, from scientists to soil testers, according to Rob Owen of Bio Nebraska, a local trade group. 

bio manufacturing
A panel discussion Wednesday at the governor’s ag and economic development summit focused on the potential of bio-manufacturing. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Owen, along with four speakers on a panel about bio-manufacturing, said the industry is growing, and needs to better communicate that it provides great-paying jobs. A report done by Bio Nebraska said that the average bio-sciences jobs in Nebraska was paying nearly $83,000 a year, well above the state average for all jobs of $54,000.

The Cargill campus at Blair, which includes Germany-based Evonik and Danish-owned Novozymes, is the nation’s largest bio-processing campus in the country, according to Owen, employing about 1,000 workers.

Lack of workers a barrier

But speakers on the panel said that a barrier to growing the industry is a lack of workforce — not just scientists, but shift workers. They said training programs need to be beefed up, and more students need to be told about the opportunities for a high-paying career in their home state.

“We need to educate our kids, train our kids and keep them here,” Pillen said, adding that the lack of workforce is a problem in several industries in Nebraska.

When asked if the state was spending enough on training programs, the governor said the state needs to be fiscally conservative and adopt favorable tax policies that don’t force residents “to run away.”

Billy Hagstrom, co-founder of the Omaha research and development firm, Bluestem Biosciences, said that companies are seeking to “de-carbonize” because consumers desire more sustainable products. He said he and his two other co-founders — who all moved from California — were encouraged by the supportive atmosphere in Nebraska.

‘Breathtaking’ momentum

Right now, Hagstrom said that there’s a “breathtaking” amount of momentum coming from the Biden Administration related to climate and sustainable products, creating more opportunities for products Bluestem is looking to develop.

Viridis Chemical of Columbus, which opened in December of 2020, uses ethanol from a nearby plant to produce chemicals used in paint, adhesives, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Rick Cochrane of Viridis said a main selling point for the company is that its carbon footprint is much lower than similar chemicals produced from oil.

Lowering the carbon footprint has risen as a leading priority for companies, he and other speakers said, and may be the No. 1 concern of European firms.

 “To get off a barrel of oil, you need to get on to a bushel of corn,” Hagstrom said.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.