Ontario seeks to expand sugar beet acreage to meet processing plant needs

SARNIA, Ont. — Ontario farmers will need to quadruple the province’s sugar beet acreage if plans for a new processing plant at Sarnia move forward.

The chair of the Ontario Sugarbeet Growers’ Association said the newly formed Ontario Sugarbeet Processors’ Cooperative will require new growers as well as expansion from existing growers.

“We’re looking to grow another 30,000 acres on top of the 10,000 acres we already grow in Ontario for the Michigan Sugar Co.,” Mark Lumley said.

“As the bio-economy moves forward, we’re going to be the forefront of that.…We want to be slicing beets by 2020.”

Lumley said farmers will be asked to join the new co-operative in about a year. It will require that they commit acres of beets and investment for the venture.

Sugar beet growers close to Sarnia, in Lambton County and Chatham-Kent, have been described as innovative producers, but Lumley said the current production area in Ontario will need to be expanded to include additional growers in Huron and Middlesex counties and other locations within 150 kilo-metres of Sarnia.

Aung Oo with Bioindustrial Innovation Canada in Sarnia has had an important role in investigating the idea.

He is the lead author of a feasibility study looking at the technical and economic aspects of the proposal and will be working with BIC’s executive director, Sandy Marshall, over the next 12 months to help turn preliminary plans into a commercial venture.

Oo said $145 million will likely be needed to build a plant capable of handling sugar beets from 30,000 acres. Perhaps half of the total cost will need to come from farmers.

It’s estimated that the return on investment from the production of table sugar would be around 20 percent, Oo said, but a 30 percent return is possible if the beets are converted into products used for industrial purposes.

“The sugar beet advantage is that you can grow them for the human consumption market while you wait for the bio-industrial market to develop.”

The same industrial products that are made from fossil fuel can also be produced from sucrose, the type of sugar rendered from sugar beets and sugar cane and found in most plants.

The beet pulp, which is a byproduct, can be sold as a desirable feed ingredient for cattle, Oo said.

A potential industrial customer for the sucrose would be the BioAmber plant in Sarnia, which produces succinic acid and has an annual production capacity of 30,000 tonnes, according to the company’s website.

Oo understands BioAmber has plans to build a second commercial plant with five or six times the capacity.

Lumley and other growers are excited about the prospect for a new market for their beets, but they’re currently focused on completing this year’s harvest. Yields are strong and quality has been good.

The sugar beet industry in Ontario goes back to the turn of the 19th century and flourished for about six decades. However, factories began to close with the importation of sugar made from sugar cane.

The industry was revived about 20 years ago, sparked by demand from the Michigan Sugar Co., which is now a farmer-owned co-operative with members in Ontario and Michigan.

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