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From cornstalks to sugar

Farmers ready to participate in bioeconomy

With consumers pushing for a greener, more sustainable chemical industry, agriculture is poised to play a key role in the new bioeconomy, especially with renewable resources that can be converted into bioenergy and biobased chemicals.

This time, farmers aren’t waiting around to find out how they can get involved.

A group of farmers in southwestern Ontario is getting in on the ground floor of a commercial-scale facility at Sarnia, Ont. that will convert corn stover into cellulosic sugar, which can then be used to make plastics, lubricants, paints and other bio-based products.

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The new facility, to be operated by Comet Biorefining, is a win-win for farmers. That’s according to Dave Park, a Sarnia-area grower who is a director with the Grain Farmers of Ontario and president of the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative, formed two years ago to collaborate on the development of a sustainable agricultural biomass supply chain.

Creating a market for cornstalks will benefit farmers in two ways, says Park.

The first is agronomic. Corn stover has become a management challenge for farmers, especially with the bigger, tougher plants produced by today’s high-yield corn crops. Many farmers now find that because of the amount of crop residue after corn, it is difficult to get a good stand of soybeans the following year.

Farmers are having to use more tillage to manage the crop residue, says Park, but removing a portion of the corn stover from the field would make it easier for farmers to plant a subsequent crop and eliminate the need for extra tillage.

The second reason is business. Selling the corn crop residue would be an opportunity to boost income from the farm without having to increase the land base, Park says.

corn baler and bales

The co-op is looking for up to 150 growers within 100 kms of Sarnia.

The Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-oper­ative will be responsible for removing the corn crop residue, aggregating it at a central location and delivering it to the conveyor belt at the biomass plant, says Park.

Farmers would combine their corn crop as usual, with Park envisioning a two-pass system for the removal of the corn stover. First, a flail chopper would be used to cut the cornstalks. The chopper would be set high in order to leave 50 per cent of the crop residue in the field to maintain soil organic matter levels, he explains.

The second pass would be with the baler, after which bales will be stacked at the edge of the field until they can be transported to a central aggregation site.

The co-operative will ensure the bales are removed from the field by March 30 of the following year, and bale weights and moisture levels will be recorded at the central aggregation facility.

All of the farmers supplying corn crop residue will need to be members of the co-operative. This ensures that a consistent product is delivered to the conveyor belt and also gives farmers a voice at the table, says Park.

The co-operative will own a 40 per cent stake in the biorefinery, which means farmer members will also get “a portion of the value of the sugar coming out the other end,” says Park.

The new cellulosic sugar plant is the culmination of several years’ work by several players, including farmers, industry, and government, who have been trying to advance green technology and the bioeconomy.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has been working on biomass issues for several years, says OFA president Don McCabe. McCabe farms in Sarnia-Lambton, near the proposed plant site and is also vice-chair of the Bio­industrial Innovation Centre (BIC), a non-profit group which aims to bridge the gap between research and the commercial application of green technologies.

“You have to get everything moving in the same direction,” says McCabe. “Farmers aren’t going to take off the stover without a market but the company won’t come unless farmers are taking off the feedstock.” While some say it’s the proverbial “chicken and egg” situation, McCabe prefers the analogy “the same tide will raise all boats.”

In 2013, the OFA hired the University of Guelph (Ridgetown Campus) to investigate the potential for a commercial-scale biorefinery. The report, called “Develop­ment of a Business Case for Cornstalks to Bioprocessing Venture” is available on the OFA website along with other studies completed by the OFA. Focus group meetings with producers were held as part of the investigation to determine producer interest and concerns. The analysis also considered four possible business models, and it then determined that a supply co-op where all entities of the value-chain could potentially be equity members was the preferred model.

OFA’s research indicated that problems with high levels of corn crop residue occur at yields above 150 bushels per acre, says McCabe. Soils will warm up faster with the excess corn stover removed but farmers will need to be compensated for the nutrients that are leaving the field, he adds.

OFA also organized corn stover baling demonstrations which were attended by about 1,000 farmers. McCabe says this work showed that the AGCO large square baler is capable of handling cornstalks in addition to wheat straw and hay.

Sarnia, which has been a petrochemical industry hub for more than 70 years, is a good location for the bioprocessing plant, says McCabe. Industrial land with all of the necessary infrastructure services is available as well as a skilled workforce. “And the feedstock is available just one concession over.”

Park and several other local farmers got involved about two years ago. BIC brought all of the players together, including farmers, government, end-users and technology providers. “It seemed to be a worthwhile project so we formed a co-oper­a­tive,” says Park. “That meeting seemed to create traction… the ball gained momentum.” He adds: “We’ve been passing all of the checkpoints ever since.”

“It’s good for farmers to be involved to steer the way the industry goes. We’re taking an active role in adding value to undervalued corn crop residue,” says Park.

BIC evaluated the various companies that had the technology to convert biomass into sugar. They started with 19 potential companies and during a process that took a year and a half, whittled the field down to a handful. At this point they let the farmer co-operative choose the successful company. “We let the co-op have the final say since it would be working with them,” says Dr. Murray McLaughlin, an adviser at BIC and the former executive director.

One of the reasons the co-op chose Comet Biorefining is that its proposal was not a megaplant, but it is scalable. “We have to walk before we can run. We don’t want to get too big too fast,” says Park.

The co-op also liked that Comet Biorefining can use more than one feedstock, continues Park. If there are problems, such as a heavy rain or early snow that makes it difficult to remove the stover, the plant could run on wheat straw or wood chips instead, although Park hopes it will be running on 100 per cent corn stover. “We want to build up a surplus inventory in the event of poor weather,” he says.

The Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative will be holding information meetings this fall in order to complete its Equity Raise Campaign.

“We’ll show what work’s been done, but it will be up to each farmer to decide if it’s a fit,” says Park, who adds that they are hoping to attract about 100 to 150 members within a 100-km radius of the Sarnia plant.

McLaughlin expects agriculture will see even more diversification opportunities in the bioeconomy. “It could be selling crop residue or it could be purpose-grown crops such as Miscanthus or switchgrass.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Corn Guide


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Helen Lammers-Helps

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