CEDAR RAPIDS — It is all around us, but many people may not recognize the impact it has on our lives and communities.
It is the bioproducts and food-processing industry in the Corridor and the source of the cereal we may eat, the fiber in our tacos, the yeast in our bread, the sweetener in our beverages, the enzymes in our detergents and the ethanol in our cars and trucks.
The industry, despite being highly automated, accounts for almost 4,000 direct jobs, paying an average $85,000 annually, plus another 8,000 indirect jobs. Thirty percent of all those jobs are white-collar or professional positions.
Almost $1 billion has been invested in new plant construction and equipment since February 2003. That doesn’t count the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to repair damage from the June 2008 flood.
The industry, which dates back to 1873 in Cedar Rapids, provides a voracious market for Iowa’s corn farmers, consuming 1.1 million bushels of corn a day grown by farmers within 200 miles of the city.
“When the new $540 million Archer Daniels Midland dry-grind ethanol plant is completed and operating next year, Cedar Rapids will be the largest corn-processing city in the world,” said Frank Rydzewski, marketing lecturer at the University of Iowa Henry B. Tippie College of Business. “Cedar Rapids also will produce the largest quantity of ethanol in the world — 540 million gallons each year.”
Rydzewski, former president of Penford Products in Cedar Rapids, said those in the bioproducts and food-processing believe the industry doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
“It’s the fabric of our community, but many people don’t see it has high-tech or realize the number of people that it employs,” he said. “These are quality jobs with good pay and benefits in an industry that touches all our lives.”
At Quaker Oats, the “Quaker Girls” of yesteryear who hand-filled tubes of oatmeal have been replaced with automation, said Don Chizek, general manager of the landmark Cedar Rapids plant with 1,100 employees.
“The majority of our people are operators who watch equipment,” Chizek said. “They’re taking quality measures to assure the quality of the product at manufacture time. Really, the only manual work that we have in the plant is supplying cartons for the line and the film for the cereal bags. All of the filling of the bags, their insertion into cartons and the cartons into a case is done automatically.”
Quality-standards processes with names like LEAN and Six Sigma are used to improve operations at Quaker, Chizek said. “These processes require very technical, strong problem-solvers,” he said.
John Bloomhall, president of Diamond V Mills in Cedar Rapids, said more than 15 percent of his company’s 80 employees have advanced degrees.
“We need people with chemistry and biology backgrounds,” Bloomhall said. “When I started working for the company in 1988, we had 44 employees. If a customer called, one of us would take their order.
“Today, we have customer-service staff specifically trained to meet the needs of our customers around the world. We have people in our tech center with Ph.D.s and veterinary experience.”
Diamond V Mills ships to more than 40 countries, which means employees there must arrange logistics for transportation ranging from trucks to steamship lines. “They also have to handle all the required documentation.” Lori Kramer, senior customer-service manager, said. “Every country requires something a little different.”
Mike Rizor, manager of the Cargill corn-processing plant in Cedar Rapids, cited the use of “predictive technology” to accurately project when a piece of equipment is likely to fail.
“We can replace it before there is an unplanned failure,” he said. “We have employees and contractors who are skilled in areas like vibration analysis. That’s absolutely critical in terms of reliability.”
Rizor’s facility, which produces corn syrup and starches for a variety of applications, employs about 200, including 110 plant operators represented by Teamsters Local 238. The other 90 employees are support personnel, from accounting and engineering to quality assurance and research and development.
Growth in the region
ADM, which arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1971 with the purchase of interests in Corn Sweeteners Inc., has a significant physical presence. Its new $540 million dry grind mill, rising southwest of the company’s existing wet and dry mills, will increase the plant’s annual ethanol capacity by 275 million gallons.
Decatur, Ill.-based ADM has more than 1,300 employees and contract workers in Cedar Rapids.
People in ADM’s skilled positions — electricians, painters, pipe fitters and welders — maintain and upgrade its facilities.
ADM also operates rail car repair and trucking operations in Cedar Rapids as well as a cogeneration plant that produces enough steam and electricity to meet the needs of its corn processing operations.
The large number of trucks bringing corn to ADM and rail cars carrying animal feed, corn syrup, starch and ethanol to customers shows the ADM plant’s impact on the region.
The bioproduct and food processing industry has its critics who contend that corn should be used primarily for food, rather than fuel. Use of high fructose corn syrup has been linked to a growing obesity trend, and nutritionists complain about the high level of processed foods in the American diet.
Locally, motorists complain about trains blocking downtown streets and grain trucks waiting to unload corn, soybeans and oats.
But Mark Seckman, president of the Cedar Rapids economic development organization Priority One, said the Corridor is viewed in a positive light internationally for its bioproduct and food-processing industry cluster.
“We recently spoke with representatives of European food-ingredient companies at a conference in Germany,” Seckman said. “When we said we were from Cedar Rapids and the Corridor, they told us they knew all about what we have here. That really opens doors for us when we’re trying to attract new jobs and capital investment.”