By Brandy Harrison
SARNIA Farmers could be in on the ground floor if a sugar mill that uses corn residue is built in Western Ontario, says the president of a new farmer co-op.
With momentum gaining around the idea that a sugar mill may set up shop in Western Ontario, buying crop residue like corn stover and wheat stalks from farmers to extract cellulosic sugar, a small group came together to form the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative in October, says Sarnia crop farmer Dave Park.
“It gives farmers a voice at the table. A lot of work is going on and if farmers are not involved, we may be out of the loop,” he says.
Cellulosic sugar can be used to make ethanol or other biofuels, or biochemical building blocks for food ingredients or fragrances. Its part of a growing bioeconomy, says Park, that seeks to use renewable resources as an alternative to petroleum products. Crop reside also avoids the food-versus-fuel debate that dogs ethanol production, he says.
The co-op is involved in a study with Bioindustrial Innovation Canada in Sarnia to assess 15 to 20 extraction technologies to determine the best fit. Other partners include the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and biochemical companies such as BioAmber in Sarnia, Jungbunzlauer Canada Inc. in Port Colborne, and the Integrated Grain Producers Co-operative Inc., which runs an ethanol plant in Alymer.
The study may be wrapped up by September, but there will still be a lot of unknowns, such as sugar yields, extraction costs, and the soil impact of removing residue.
Its been done in the Midwest, so they wont have to reinvent the wheel, says Park. In Iowa, harvesting corn stalks has allowed farmers to plant earlier in spring with less tillage.
Its too early to put a number on returns, says Park, but a University of Guelph study last summer floated returns of $37 to $184 per dry tonne. In Iowa, profit is pegged at the low end of the range.
“Its a chance for farmers to increase revenue on an acre of land without increasing their land base, which has been harder and harder with the price of land,” says Park, adding that theyve considered a business model that may involve farmers being paid for stover and receiving part of the proceeds from the extracted sugar sales. “We want to be involved in how this industry is shaped here in Ontario. Farmers have an opportunity to move up a few rungs on the ladder.”
But farmers may wait awhile: a fully-operational mill isnt likely until 2018 or 2019.