Co-op to supply new Sarnia sugar plant
August 14, 2017
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By Paul Morden
The president of a farm co-operative partnering with Comet Biorefining to make industrial sugar from corn stalks and leaves, and wheat stalks at a proposed new plant in Sarnia, says it has signed on approximately one-third of the members it requires.
“Really, this is in the farmers’ hands,” said Dave Park, president of the board of the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative.
“We need the farmers to take a serious look at this, and commit the acres so we can continue to progress.”
The co-operative was formed after Comet Biorefining, a startup company from London, announced plans to build and operate a plant at the TransAlta site in Sarnia with the capacity to produce 27 million kilograms (60 million pounds) of dextrose sugar annually for use in the making of renewable biofuels and biochemicals.
The 75,000 tonnes of corn stalks and leaves, and wheat straw, the site needs annually as its feedstock is to be supplied by the co-operative which is looking to sign up a total of 55,000 acres in the region.
As well as supplying the plant with a portion of the plant residue left following harvest, the members are being asked to invest in the co-operative which will be a partner in the Sarnia plant.
The co-operative announced last week it has hired Brian Cofell as its general manager.
Park said Cofell was an “excellent candidate” with experience and qualifications the board was seeking.
Cofell, from Chatham-Kent, will lead the co-op efforts to complete signing up members to its equity campaign, and help it prepare the first harvest, expected in 2018.
“It’s going to be our job, as the board of directors, and Brian’s to get over that final hump,” Park said.
The co-operative came out of efforts by Sarnia-based Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, along with farmers and agriculture organizations, to find commercial opportunities to turn crop residue into sugar for industrial use.
Since forming, the co-op has been talking to farmers in the region at townhall meetings, field demonstrations and with venues over the last year.
“It’s going well,” Park said.
Putting a full-time general manager in place was an important step in that process, he said.
The co-op is expected to handle the logistics of collecting and baling stalks from the member’s field after harvest, and trucking them to the Comet refinery.
Only a portion of the stalks left from corn and wheat crops will be taken from each field, with the balance left to return organic material to the soil.
“It is something new, something different, a new opportunity for farmers, certainly, to generate revenue on an under-utilized crop residue,” Park said.
“We’re pretty excited about the opportunity.”
Farmers would be paid for the crop residue they supply, providing a new source of income, and the co-op has said reducing the amount of corn stalks and leaves on the land can reduce the amount of tillage required, and provide other benefits.
Cofell, who farms in Chatham-Kent, is a graduate of the Ridgetown College, with more than 20 years experience in agricultural business.
“It is exciting for me to be a part of this startup venture and help bring the vision of the co-op founding members to life,” Cofell said in a news release.
“As a farmer myself, I see the opportunity for our farmer owners to support the profitability of their operations along with contributing to the broader economic benefits that this business will create.”
Park said the co-op had contract employees previously, but Cofell is its first full-time hire.
“We’re going to have start scaling up and this is an important step to do that, to ensure everything stays on the proper timelines to get things rolling by our projected start date,” Park said.
Once fully operating, the co-op is expected to employ approximately 20 full and part-time staff.
Rich Troyer, chief executive officer of Comet Biorefining, said the company is currently in the design and engineering stage for the Sarnia plant.
That engineering work will determine when construction will begin, he said.
“Once we work through the engineering phase we’ll have an updated timeline we can provide.”
Comet has said in the past it would like to have the plant operating in 2018.
Troyer said Comet is encouraged by the news the co-operative has hired a general manager.
“We’re very impressed with his qualifications and we think he’ll do a really good job of making sure we get the message out to potential members about the benefits of the co-op,” Troyer said.
The co-op “is an absolutely critical partner for us,” he said.
“We’re really pleased with the progress we’ve made with them.”