Ontario biomass producers in expansion mode

Don Knott is currently Ontario’s largest biomass producer with large fields of switchgrass near Clinton in Huron County.  |  Jeffrey Carter photo

CAMPELLVILLE, Ont. — There’s been much talk about dedicated biomass in Ontario over the past couple decades. Now the industry may finally be ready to grow.

“We expect a major surge in acres this year,” Urs Eggiman told a Ontario Biomass Producers Co-operative meeting Feb. 25.

“We expect it will soon go to five digits, at least 10,000 acres.”

Co-op members estimate that switchgrass and miscanthus are grown on 2,000 acres in the province. Many growers are like Norm Richardson, whose family grows hay near Burlington for primarily urban buyers.

He’s belonged to the co-operative for several years, but he planted his first switchgrass, 17 acres, just last year. He expects his first substantial harvest next year.

Richardson said it’s a superior bedding product, which is now the biggest market, but he’s also looking to the future. He’s involved in an evaluation of small square bale for insulation in construction when foundations are poured in the winter.

“As far as I know, they’ve worked as well as wheat straw,” he said.

Richardson is looking to get at least seven cents a pound for his switchgrass, which is an informal price set by the co-op. He sees potential in the construction market of selling them and then picking them up again for other uses.

Urs Eggiman, vice-president of the biomass co-operative, agreed with Richardson’s assessment for the potential of switchgrass. He grows 135 acres of the crop, making him one of the larger growers.

“I know biomass has legs, but it takes time to get there,” he said.

“I’m convinced this can be a sustainable revenue stream for farmers.”

He said the increasing number of small farmers growing biomass will make it easier to scale up in the future when the industrial potential for fibre, energy and chemicals can be realized.

Switchgrass and miscanthus require at least year to be established and three to four years be-fore full production. Once established, the major expenses associated with the crops are for harvest, storage and transport.

Eggiman said he can help with propagation if more acres are needed. Two or three tons of Cave-In-Rock seed, a widely adapted line, will be available once it’s cleaned.

Meanwhile, the co-operative is struggling to maintain its small budget. Director Larry Davis is looking at the possibility of developing a checkoff for switchgrass and miscanthus sales.

It would be an informal process for now, involving some of the larger growers such as Don Knott near Clinton, Ont., who’s been a switchgrass advocate for close to 20 years. A checkoff of $5.50 per ton would be enough to maintain the co-operative’s shoestring budget, even it were to be collected on half the acreage.

There’s also the possibility of leveraging government support with “in-kind” producer commitments.

“We don’t have that big commitment (from end users) to drive us yet,” said co-op president Jamie Fischer. “Larry is just trying to set something else up for the interim.”

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