A plan to use Ontario-grown sugar beets for production of industrial-use sugars could grow Ontario acres of the crop by 30,000.
The Ontario Innovative Sugarbeet Processors Co-operative (OISPC) was formed to investigate the possibility of supplying companies with sugars, being increasingly used to create bio-based polymers.
The organization had BioIndustrial Innovation Canada (BIC) do a preliminary economic analysis, which OISPC President Mark Lumley said was optimistic. BIC is working on further economic analysis which “continues to look excellent, very profitable and promising,”
The most popular chemical product of sugar distillation is succinic acid, a building block of polymers. Most polymers are created from petrochemicals, but there is a significant desire to shift to bio-based chemical production, created from organic matter, such as wood pulp, straw and corn stover (another co-operative is working to provide corn stover for processing in Sarnia) and sugar beets.
All of the 10,000 acres of sugar beets grown in Ontario are in Chatham-Kent and Lambton County, and all are members of the Michigan Sugar Co-operative, which takes their sugar beets. That puts the expertise and experience in sugar beet production not far from Sarnia, which has been the Ontario base of petroleum chemical production and is transitioning, with help from organizations such as BIC, to become a base for bio-based chemical production.
Lumley says the new sugar processing co-operative believes there’s potential for 30,000 new acres of sugar beets in the province.
“It’s not that big of a stretch from corn, beans and wheat for guys. It gives them another crop in their rotation and another profit source,” says Lumley, who farms near Sarnia in Lambton County.
“Growers make significantly more money growing sugar beets than growing corn, soybeans or wheat.”
Rob McKerrall, chair of the Ontario Sugarbeet Grower’s Association (OSGA), says that the association is a supporter of the sugar beet co-op and has put money towards the study.
“If we can diversify more acres into sugar beets and other crops for that matter, that’s a plus,” he says. McKerrall says the sugar beets he grows helps to moderate low corn and soybean prices.
“With sugar beets, I don’t think I’d be on the farm fulltime. It’s been a very positive thing for Chatham-Kent and Lambton County.”
The question currently being examined is pricing – if sugar beet growers can deliver sugars to companies at a price they will accept.
BIC is currently talking to three companies, says Lumley and he hopes to have a commitment within six months. The goal is to be operational by 2020 and that would require some sort of market commitment within the next six months. If it drags on longer than that, the project will likely to continue to make sense, says Lumley.
Some companies, like BioAmber, are already producing succinic acid in Sarnia, so there’s a market price that’s known, which helps in planning.
The OISPC will be a producer-funded co-operative, meaning in order to ship to the co-op, farmers will need to have an equity investment in it.
“That’s how we’ll finance it,” says Lumley. “We’ll own the factory and own the whole value chain to the end product.” There may be a need for some government loan guarantees and some debt financing, but the hope is that the co-op can be funded without outside equity.
Beet crop slow to start, but high in quality
The Ontario sugar beet early harvest is mostly wrapped up, as growers supply Michigan Sugar with sugar beets are they need them to keep the plant running. There is now a bit of a lull before the “permanent pile” is started – the storage of a large volume of sugar beets at a piling yard where they wait until they are sent to Michigan Sugar.
Ontario grower Mark Lumley, past chair of the Ontario Sugarbeet Growers’Association, says the crop was planted late, like many of the crops in Ontario, but that also meant they were planted into warm and fit soils, which meant there were few replants and strong germination, so he expects the total harvest to still be good.
“We have more good acres than last year. The sugars are nice and significantly better than last year.”
Ontario Sugarbeet Growers Association Chair Rob McKerrall says the sugar quality is excellent in the beats, despite the variable planting condition in the spring and lack of rain in late summer. McKerrall has been harvesting sugar beets for other growers. He says the lack of rain has made harvesting easy, but it means less growth on the remaining sugar beets still in the ground.
Michigan Sugar is packing about 300 pounds per ton of beets. Lumley calls 275 pounds per ton of beets “a nice number”.