Benson farmer cooperative producing Prairie vodka
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 in Chippewa County.
Today they feel like they are getting somewhere, and so is their organic corn. It goes directly north to Benson, where it's fermented and distilled for vodka that will soon be available coast to coast.
Prairie organic vodka is the latest entry into 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 Company in Benson.
The brand is a partnership between the cooperative and Phillips Distilling Company 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,'' said Phillips of how he is trying to rein in his enthusiasm for the new product.
He calls his company's partnership with the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company "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 is also a kosher facility.
He was also impressed by the innovation in Benson, particularly the current efforts to use corn cobs as the biomass fuel to help power production at the ethanol facility.
"Benson may be one of the most progressive, alternative energy capitals in the world,'' said Phillips.
The fact that it is farmer-owned, and that its corn is truly Minnesota-grown by family farmers like the Boikes, all complement the goals of this venture, according to Phillips.
Why organic vodka? Market research shows that 25 percent of American consumers choose to purchase at least one organic product a week, said Phillips.
It also fits his personal philosophy of preferring products that are made close to home, and in ways that are kind to the environment and fair to people.
This venture is unique in that the farmer-owned cooperative has an ownership stake in the brand itself. Bill Lee, general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, said the farmer-owners of the company could benefit if the value of the brand appreciates.
Producing this second brand of vodka -- the Benson company also produces Shakers -- allows Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company to diversify its product mix and more fully utilize the production capacity of the facility.
Phillips has distributed the Prairie brand to liquor stores in parts of Minnesota, and the company has hosted introductory events in markets in Chicago, New York City and California. An advertising campaign will launch on a large scale in July, featuring the theme: "Let the Prairie In.''
Tilling the western Minnesota prairie to produce organic corn is no easy feat, according to Boike. "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.
One guy who is not surprised by it all is Pat McGeary, manager of the Benson Municipal Liquor Store. 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,'' said McGeary.