The project recalibrates economies of scale and shifting resources in the Great Plains by strategically consolidating ethanol production and demand.
As progress pushes the world into a greater degree of interconnectivity and the forces of globalization push economic processes to a higher degree of efficiency, it becomes easy to forget the marginalized areas of the productive landscape.
The 100th parallel has repeatedly been used as a datum dividing the country’s humid eastern half with its more arid western half. This datum runs directly through the Great Plains Region of the Western Midwest, between marginal and productive land. This is where the farmland ends and the grassland begins.
For generations, farmers and ranchers have struggled to generate a sustainable method for ensuring a productive landscape in a land rich in fertile soil but disappointingly unreliable in rainfall accumulations. Expressions like “when it rains it pours” or “it’s either feast or famine” paint an accurate description of the sort of melancholic lifestyle many of the early farmers had to endure in order to produce an economically viable crop yield. With the discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer and the advent of pin-pivot irrigation, a false sense of productive sustainability was ushered into the region; promising to the residents what seemed like a limitless source of irrigation. Nearly three quarters of a century later, climate change seems to promise even greater volatility in rainfall yields, rising temperatures and aquifer depletion threaten to transform the fringe land into desert.This ominous news – one would hope – should incite a call to action on behalf of the farmers and the people in the region; it is their livelihood that is at stake after all.
Research in resource depletion in the region prompted me to investigate contemporary energy extraction and distribution methods in the fringe landscape near the 100th parallel. Observing the most common fuel choices at local gas stations across the State of Nebraska, the choice for powering mechanical equipment seems to be either unleaded gasoline, diesel, or ethanol. The dependence on an external trans-national network renders the farmers dependent on the oil and corn industries to operate their machines, which then produce the corn that is fed back into the system as alternative fuel. The highly subsidized system of ethanol production and the misguided utopian notion that ethanol could be a way for America to ‘grow its own fuel’ in a region where the productivity of fringe farmland is at stake should encourage us to begin investigating new systems that would be more responsive to energy and land use needs of the future.
The proposed Ethanol Boutique system encourages the ethanol energy network to operate at a much more localized scale to produce and distribute ethanol and other corn goods to amplify ethanol’s benefit on the local economy. The hope is to create a network of operational nodes that benefit from their location between population centers to mass produce ethanol for the regionalized energy economy during years of high corn yield; while producing boutique goods during low corn yield years where the population can benefit from selling the corn product at a higher rates, due to the higher price of corn. This would allow for a new, inventive system to begin emerging when corn prices skyrocket, due to high demand but a low yield. Instead of the production of Ethanol, the network would begin to produce and distribute boutique goods unique to the conditions of the region, such as higher end whiskey or fine corn products like grits.
The form of the boutique is derived from urban and architectural conditions found throughout the rural US. The standard A-Frame “housey- house” is the basis for the extrusion of the retail component; whereas, it’s inverse form, an abstraction of a silo, becomes the basis for the commercial aspect of the project. Through extrusion manipulation, tapering, twisting, and boundary manipulation, the basic form distorts to functionally accommodate all of the processes involved in the ethanol production process. The processes then take place at three distinct “types” across the regional landscape. Grain crushing and preparation as well as boutique retail are done within the depths of the fringe land (Type C); Grain refinement and distribution is done within the periphery of the towns and the productive landscape (Type B); and lastly, pure distribution with boutique restaurant and ethanol station adhere to the more conservative formal language and populate the urban centers of the landscape (Type A).
With the looming volatility in resource reliability, the project offers a strategy to allow for a better land use management strategy that can meet an evolving market demand. This network will also perhaps act as a safety net for the region if large corporations begin pulling out or deem the land too harsh or unreliable for sustainable profitable growth. If the landscape returns to its volatile state before the advent of irrigation and the discovery of aquifers, there is a danger that many of the corporate players will simply move on to more profitable lands, putting an even greater strain on the local economy and the residents of the region and expediting the exodus that has already begun out from the rural Midwest. The farmers and residents of the communities within the region will now have a way to augment the gaping hole that is left when industries begin to move out and other networks and infrastructures begin to crumble. This will become a tool and a resource for them to process and produce energy and goods from the remaining resources in the region; however, if rain continues and the good times roll and corn is cheap and bountiful, then the facilities will be ready to continue and produce the same amount of ethanol currently in production for the region; sustaining Middle America’s seemingly conservative ways and content for the way things are.