Bourbon Country has become a powerhouse in combating the hand sanitizer shortages caused by COVID-19. Commonwealth Agri-Energy, an ethanol plant based in Hopkinsville, KY, has partnered with multiple distilleries to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer. The Commonwealth team has worked hard to quickly ramp up production to be able to fulfill ethanol orders from distilleries across Kentucky and Tennessee, including:
Commonwealth’s strong partnerships, adaptability, and ambition has been essential in meeting the new increase in demand but gearing up for this kind of transition didn’t happen overnight. Fortunately, Commonwealth Agri-Energy made modifications to their facility and added equipment that can be used to make beverage or industrial-grade ethanol just two years prior. This foundation of production flexibility enabled them to quickly switch operations when the outbreak began to be able to produce 190-proof ethanol for use in hand sanitizer.
Initially, the team at Commonwealth made a test batch of their own hand sanitizer and donated it to a nearby military base. Then, they modified their operations to produce the ethanol and package it into 270-gallon totes, a final product size that’s much smaller than their typical shipment of ethanol but better served their customers at the time. Mick Henderson, General Manager of Commonwealth Agri-Energy, quickly took on the role of business development and formed partnerships with three distilleries, a list that quickly grew and has the potential to grow even longer.
Soon after the initial partnerships began, orders for ethanol grew from single-digit amounts of totes, to double digits, to orders now being filled by the truckload in addition to large quantities of totes. In fact, for the first month of the project, demand doubled week after week, allowing Commonwealth’s partners to donate hand sanitizer to front-line workers, first responders, hospitals, and other high-priority locations, in addition to selling the product online through website orders.
“We’ve been fortunate to see exponential growth in a short amount of time which has allowed us to consider long-term opportunities and finding new homes for our product. While the circumstances were not ideal, we want to help in any way we can to help battle COVID-19 and keep our neighbors safe,” said Henderson. “Calls are continuing to roll in and we’re eager to meet orders from new locations so that we can expand our footprint and help out as many companies and people as we can.”
Throughout this process, Commonwealth has used Eco-Energy, an ethanol marketing and logistics company, to assist with the details of the transactions. Josh Bailey, CEO of Eco-Energy, and his team have helped grow Commonwealth’s Nashville presence through a local relationship with a family owned and operated distillery that is supplying hand sanitizer to government agencies and large companies like Amazon. Commonwealth’s nearby supply now supports the production of 80,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week.
“We’re eager to do everything we can to help our plants to stay viable. Partnerships like these are a win-win because they allow us to find new ways to add value and an opportunity to diversify,” says Bailey. “As Nashville and other cities plan for phased reopening, we expect more need for locally manufactured and sourced “green” cleaning products like plant-based sanitizer.”
Like Henderson, Bailey believes that the hand sanitizer market poses an opportunity for Commonwealth and other ethanol producers to find new markets for their product and help meet a high demand that many expect to linger after stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“This opportunity has been unique and we’re now looking at the current circumstance as a model for long-term, sustainable markets for corn-based ethanol. Although the fuel market provides the most value to the ethanol industry, the hand sanitizer industry has been permanently altered by COVID-19 and our producers can help fill the need,” said Bailey.
In addition to their partnership in Nashville, other distilleries have capitalized on opportunities that bring hand sanitizer to a broader set of customers. Thanks to a partnership with the Kentucky Corn Growers Association (KyCorn), the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and local distilleries, plans are in motion that will bring Commonwealth Agri-Energy’s product to farmers’ markets across the commonwealth.
According to Laura Knoth, the Executive Director of KyCorn and Commonwealth Agri-Energy board member, KyCorn and Commonwealth Agri-Energy are donating bottles of hand sanitizer to farmers’ markets and Livestock Sale Barns to help them keep their operations as clean as they can for customer safety. Since the hand sanitizer is made in Kentucky with Kentucky corn, it will bear the “Kentucky Proud” label. Kentucky Proud is a marketing designation granted by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
“We’re proud of the hard work Mick and the Commonwealth team has put in to meet the growing demand of hand sanitizer,” Knoth said. “Now more than ever, it's important to stay connected and take care of one another, so I’m excited to see the Kentucky Proud hand sanitizer find new ways to meet the needs of Kentuckians. One of our top priorities for the new initiative is to get the hand sanitizer to the ag businesses that need it in order to stay safe while they do business. Ky Corn is proud to be a partner – it’s agriculture helping agriculture through the Kentucky Proud initiative and I’m thankful that our plant is using Kentucky-grown corn to provide value across the state.”
This post is part of the Renewable Fuels Association’s new #RFACommunityPartners series that is spotlighting individual member companies’ heroic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.