Lincolnway Energy, located between Ames and Nevada, celebrated the milestone of 1 billion gallons of ethanol produced in January 2023. Originally formed in May 2004, the plant started as a 50 million gallon per year dry mill ethanol plant. Today, it produces close to 95 million gallons of ethanol a year and is a driver of economic activity across the region.
According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa produces 2.5 billion bushels of corn each year, with over half of that going to ethanol production. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production, with 57 percent (1.5 billion bushels) of the corn grown in Iowa going to create nearly 27 percent of all American ethanol. Lincolnway Energy is one of 42 ethanol plants in Iowa and a key player in helping assure a strong future for clean, renewable, and domestically produced fuels.
Nearly 20 years ago, Lincolnway Energy was one of only 4 coal-fired plants in the nation. At the time, coal was inexpensive to use, and the plant paid for itself in a short period of time. They produced 50 million gallons a year and operated partner ethanol plants in Minnesota and North Dakota. In 2014, the company moved to natural gas through Alliant Energy, and this move, along with a staff restructuring and efficiency audit, triggered an acceleration in production. The company started producing 50, 60, 70 million gallons of ethanol a year, and by 2023, they were up to 95 million gallons.
The daily operations of an ethanol plant are robust, but with automation, much of it can be controlled by a small crew working around the clock. There are days when Lincolnway receives 40,000 bushels of corn an hour. At 56 pounds a bushel, this can be up to 200 truckloads a day. Through their dry mill production, they are grinding 90,000 bushels a day, creating corn mash, and ultimately producing 260,000 gallons of ethanol a day. All of this is done with 42 employees on staff.
Plant Manager Chris Cleveland, who has been with Lincolnway Energy since 2008, recognizes the importance of developing a strong staff culture for the plant to operate effectively. “For us, it’s not just 42 employees, it’s 42 families that are part of our organization. What makes Lincolnway Energy special is that everyone has a voice, a hieracrchy is almost non-existent because we each need to understand jobs across the plant.” He talked about long hours at the plant with many working 12-hour shifts. “Sometimes we see each other more than our families and because of that sacrifice, we have to take care of our employees.”
Lincolnway employs staff from across a four-county region including Boone, Marshall, Polk, and Story County. A few have relocated their families to the region from as far as Texas and Georgia. The economic impact of this ethanol plant extends beyond the Ames MSA. This plant touches nearly 300 Iowa farmers and works closely with economic partners such as Key Cooperative, located east of the plant. With a direct line on the Union Pacific Railroad, the alcohol is shipped as far as Arizona where it is blended to be used as gasoline.
Cleveland sees Lincolnway Energy as the “jewel” of Iowa ethanol plants. In many ways, they are a destination to learn about the ethanol production. In 2007, the cast and crew from American Chopper, the reality television series from the Discovery Channel, visited the plant and later revealed America’s first renewable energy chopper. More recently, three different documentary crews who are covering the ethanol industry toured and conducted interviews at the plant.
Evie Peterson is a roll-up-her-sleeves type of entrepreneur who requires little sleep, a lot of coffee, and is not afraid to tackle the next big thing. Over the past 17 years, she has grown a successful catering business into a quintet of companies that has transformed Main Street Nevada. She is relentless and passionate about smart business growth, and in doing so, has been integral in the revitalization of her community.
Her portfolio of businesses now includes FarmHouse Catering, FarmGrounds coffee shop, Gatherings venue (one of the premier event spaces in the Ames MSA), the thoughtfully curated Cozy Home & Table store, and most recently, Copper Spaces, the beautiful coworking and flex space.
Peterson sat down with Traction to discuss the origins of her various companies, how she keeps it all straight, and her opinions on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
How it all began
“[FarmHouse Catering] started on the side and evolved. With three kids, I needed to do more than just a few events a year to make a little extra money for my family. I had previous experience in large-batch cooking, and some experience at a conference center. So it was a natural fit to grab onto and it eventually grew.”
In 2006, the work of FarmHouse Catering served the need that many early businesses do: it was created out of necessity to provide for her family, but quickly became a dream come true.
Peterson rented the kitchen at Indian Creek Country Club and catered their events while also making connections across the community. The word-of-mouth grew the business and when life circumstances required it, she was able to capitalize on the momentum and produce at a larger scale.
“Those early days really got me into this town and built some really good relationships with people that utilize catering on a regular basis.”
Today, Peterson is known across the region not only for her catering, but also her range of recently new businesses that have transformed Main Street Nevada. Gatherings event venue opened in 2014, FarmGrounds coffee shop in 2016, Cozy Home & Table in 2021, and the co-working Copper Spaces opened most recently in 2022. But it is the original FarmHouse Catering that supports it all in many ways.
“For us, one thing led to another, and each business opportunity was created on the momentum that preceded it. Gatherings was developed because I needed a kitchen for the catering business. I figured that if I am going to invest in a kitchen, why not invest into a venue so that I can get to a point where I am not having to move food all over the place.”
As a business owner, what will you never compromise on?
Today, Gatherings is a destination event space that is used for a range of events from wedding to corporate. If you explore their website or social media channels, you will immediately notice the design, décor, and overall aesthetics that have been purposefully curated.
“We created a marketing standard across the company that impacts each individual business. Kristy, our Marketing Director, developed color schemes that all coordinate together. Aesthetically, if you see items at Cozy, you will immediately know that it is connected with Gatherings.”
Gatherings, and the co-working space above it, Copper Spaces, include a wow factor that is immediately noticeable. It is this standard of excellence that Peterson and her team are not willing to compromise on. That philosophy applies to other aspects of the business as well.
“We have a philosophy of just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. If the product or the process is not enjoyable, beneficial, and life-giving to our company, then we are not going to do it. That is where the buck stops. If it does not meet those criteria, then we just shut it down.”
Although the decision-making ultimately rests with Peterson, she knows that her decisions impact other people, including many who have invested time and energy into making each business successful. She wants the team to weigh in and it is part of her responsibility to initiate those conversations.
“That is part of any process that we make. Any decision that I make or thing that we add to our company must answer the following questions: does this make sense? Does this fit with anything else that we are doing? And does this benefit any of our other businesses? It has to check off some boxes as far as how it correlates to our core beliefs.”
During this interview, this conversation was timely with Peterson and her team as they were currently engaged in this decision-making process.
“I wanted to know around the table what their dream for it would be. If some of them said, ‘we should shut it down,’ then we would have considered that. But not one person said that. They all had a great perspective which meant that they were invested. So that tells me that this is something that we can improve upon so we will continue with it.”
The evolution of space and addition of Copper Spaces
“It was a dream when we bought this building to do something up here. We were creating a lot of traction downstairs (at Gatherings) for smaller events, as well as corporate events, and we were not able to accommodate them. I realized that we could utilize the upstairs more and that became Copper Spaces.”
Although they had a lot of ideas for the space, including the option of renovating it and using it for their own residential living, the catalyst to move forward came when they received a grant from the State of Iowa.
“As workplace dynamics were shifting during the pandemic, we started thinking of turning that into a co-working space. I was familiar with that concept through travel and thought that if we could get the grant, then we will do it.”
The opportunity presented itself when they were awarded a $75,000 matching grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA), along with a $15,000 grant from the City of Nevada, to support their renovation. The Community Catalyst Building Remediation Program through IEDA “assists communities with the redevelopment or rehabilitation of buildings to stimulate economic growth or reinvestment in the community.” They received the maximum amount at the time.
The Copper Spaces project fit the grant opportunity perfectly and kicked off further revitalization efforts on Main Street Nevada. To date, five additional Nevada businesses have received city-issued grants.
When you reflect on starting something new, what advice would you give a new entrepreneur?
“Advice would be to get guts and have a plan. It can be scary when you take the first jump. But I have always had confidence in my abilities because that had been bred into me from an early age. I always knew that I could fall back on my abilities. And for me, that came down to hard work.”
Peterson grew up at Hidden Acres Christian Center, now one of the largest camp and conference centers in Iowa. Her father helped catapult its growth when he was hired in 1985, and as any family-operated business knows, everyone pitched in, including kids.
“My dad built it from a little shack to a resort-style camp. In many ways, I have been in the hospitality business from a young age. I started doing dishes at age 10. I had to stand on a crate to push the button on the dishwasher. Cleaning toilets and all of those things to be hospitable is completely second nature to me. Those abilities have taken me places in every job I’ve ever had.”
Only recently has Peterson come to the realization that she grew up in an entrepreneurial household.
“I had no idea. I didn’t realize it until I started my own business. Just in the last few years, I find myself doing exactly the same stuff that my dad was doing. He always had to be building, but he never did it for himself, but for others. It was 100% service for him. He never got rich off the things that he was doing, but it was purely for fun and the Lord. As I’ve been going down this path of one thing leading to another, I am doing part of this for money, but it’s also a lot of fun and contributes to making the community around me better.”
Any entrepreneurial journey is measured in part through financial success. Peterson knows this as well as anyone. But running a business is more than finances, it is a way of life and must be just as life-giving and bucket-filling in order to continue. Being flexible, creative, and having the ability to let go is also important.
“I’ve had to let go of some ideals. I think as an entrepreneur, it is important to understand that perfectionism is not attainable. It will impact profits and it will cause you to lose sight of your real goals.”
As Peterson’s enterprises have expanded over the past 17 years, she has had to grow as well. With five separate, yet inter-connected businesses, she has been forced to assess where she spends her time. Two years ago, she added a Business Manager, Ryan Larson, who oversees all of the companies: contracts, company policies, website development, and accounts payable to name a few items on his list. He was also the Project Manager for the Copper Spaces redevelopment. Larson’s position and personality has transformed the business and opened up opportunities for Peterson to focus on others.
Today, the quintet of businesses employs 6 full-time staff that help manage the event and retail spaces, along with human resource and marketing related projects. This is in addition to the 40+ part-time staff.
“Each business is a labor of love, but the team makes it absolutely amazing! They give their all and this community has supported us the entire way.”
304 Main St.
Ames, Iowa 50010
Phone: (515) 232-2310
About the Ames Chamber
Centrally and conveniently located in the heart of the Midwest and Iowa, Ames is known for its healthy, stable economy, flourishing cultural environment, and the world-renowned Iowa State University.
With over 700 members, the Ames Chamber of Commerce strives to make Ames a better place to live, work, and do business by strengthening the economic vitality and the quality of life in the Ames community.