After 11 years, vodka provides a market for organic corn

BENSON, Minn. -- Jason Boike's father started raising organic corn 11 years ago, convinced there had to be something better than supplying the commodities pipeline.

BENSON, Minn. -- Jason Boike's father started raising organic corn 11 years ago, convinced there had to be something better than supplying the commodities pipeline.

"What we were doing, it didn't seem like you were getting anywhere," said Boike, who farms outside of Maynard, Minn., in Chippewa County.

Today they feel like they are getting somewhere, and so is their organic corn. It is being fermented and distilled in Benson, Minn., made into vodka that will be available nationwide.

Prairie organic vodka will enter the ultra-premium vodka market. It's distilled by Glacial Grains Spirits, part of the 900-member, farmer cooperative that owns the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. in Benson.

The brand is a partnership between the cooperative and Phillips Distilling Co. of Minneapolis, which developed it. Phillips introduced flavored vodkas in the 1970s and, more recently, tapped Poland to bring the Belvedere brand to American palates.


Dean Phillips, fifth-generation CEO of the family-owned company, would like to see Prairie organic vodka become another milestone in the company's history. "Very high hopes, modest expectations," Phillips said about how he is trying to rein in his enthusiasm for the new product.

He calls his company's partnership with the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. "a marriage made in heaven." The Benson distillery is one of only two in the entire country certified to meet the strict standards for organic production. It's kosher, too.

Phillips said he was impressed by the innovation in Benson, particularly the efforts to use corn cobs as the biomass fuel to power production at the ethanol facility.

"Benson may be one of the most progressive alternative-energy capitals in the world," Phillips said.

The fact that it is farmer-owned and uses corn grown by Minnesota family farmers complements the goals of this venture, Phillips said.

Why organic vodka? Market research shows that25 percent of American consumers choose to purchase at least one organic product a week, Phillips said.

Producing this second brand of vodka -- the Benson company also produces Shakers -- allows Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. to diversify its product mix and more fully utilize the production capacity of the facility.

Tilling the western Minnesota prairie to produce organic corn is no easy feat, Boike said. "It is a lot more labor-intensive than conventional farming, that's for sure." To be certified he must abide by requirements that prohibit the use of commercial fertilizers or pesticides, and his choice of seed is strictly limited. No genetically modified corn is allowed.


The yields from organic corn are about one-half of those from conventional corn and, at first, so were the rewards. Boike said there was no market for the family's first crop of organic corn 11 years ago; they had to sell it on the very commodities markets they wanted to escape.

It's a different world today. The growing interest in organic meats has created a healthy demand for organic corn, and Boike has a number of markets available for his corn. All the same, he had never imagined the day that his corn would be used to make vodka. "I was pretty surprised," he said.

Pat McGeary, manager of the Benson Municipal Liquor Store, is not surprised. McGeary had the honors of introducing Shakers vodka to the region, and now his shelves are among the first in the region to offer Prairie organic vodka.

McGeary said he doesn't think Prairie will launch with as much bang as Shakers did, but he sees this as a vodka that will only grow in popularity as people discover how smooth and superior it is. "It's going to be a long-duration situation," McGeary said.

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