Soil Matters: Sustainability and Whiskey: Never Too Much of a Good Thing

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Distillery owners

Drive in any direction from DeKalb, Illinois, and you can see that this is corn country. After all, it’s where DeKalb Genetics Corporation, the inventor of hybrid seed corn, was founded in 1912.

But just a few miles southeast of town, on a nondescript rural road, you’ll find a modern family business that is not your typical midwestern corn operation.

Jamie Walter and his dad, Jim, were frustrated that their love of growing high-quality grain had no additional value once the harvested corn left their 2,000-acre farm.

“We are close to the Chicago market, yet all our grain was going to the commodity export market via the Illinois River,” says Jamie. So they looked for ways to integrate a value-added approach to their products. The “aha” moment came when Jamie was enjoying a glass of bourbon while he pored over spreadsheets on crop alternatives such as popcorn and marketable baking ingredients. “Suddenly, the light went on,” he recalls.

They founded Whiskey Acres Distillery in 2013 with business partner Nick Nagele.

One critical lesson they learned from Pickerell was to value their water resources. Good water is essential to making good whiskey.

To get started, they tapped the expertise of master distiller Dave Pickerell, who built a second career helping launch small, independent distilleries. (Pickerell, who died suddenly in 2018, played a key role in elevating Maker’s Mark to international popularity.)

“I like to describe it as distilling boot camp,” says Nagele of their work with Pickerell. “He took us through whiskey 101, 201, and 301. He was a big part [of] getting us jump-started because our learning curve was really steep.

One critical lesson they learned from Pickerell was to value their water resources. Good water is essential to making good whiskey. “He told us, ‘Don’t run your wells dry’,” says Nagele. They implemented a system designed for zero water waste. The operation needs about 400 gallons of water per day to make whiskey, with an additional 200 gallons for cooling and cleaning. “From a water sustainability concept, we’re unmatched,” Nagele says.

In fact, the partners are intent on making the entire “seed to spirit” operation as sustainable as possible. All the grain they use is grown across the road (literally), giving them a smaller carbon footprint than other distillers. Electricity is provided by an 84 kW solar system. The farming operation includes conservation practices like riparian strips, filter strips, and integrated pest management – all of which help protect clean water.

“There is an intrinsic desire among most farmers to play into that sustainability factor,” says Jaime. “But there are economic considerations. Recovering that investment may be a bigger challenge for typical commodity farms. For us, those costs can be reflected in our final product cost and used as a way to market our product.”

Jaime says they resisted the standard commodity farming model of getting big – like 10,000 acres – to make money. “We looked at the economic risks, along with the social implications to our community and neighboring farmers, and we decided that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to do more with less, have a smaller footprint, and still be economically viable.” Commodity markets are currently paying between $3 and $4 for a bushel of corn. Corn used for the distillery is returning around $700 for that same bushel.

It’s a more sustainable model of farming from both a land and economic perspective – but one that requires more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Nagele and the Walters agree that in the end, the people who visit the distillery and buy their products appreciate it.

“We care about the land, we care about the product, we care about the customers,” says Nagele. “You can feel that when you walk in the door.”

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