Sarnia plant could open doors to ag opportunities

March 10, 2017 – Louis Pin, Postmedia Network – The Ontario Sugarbeet Grows Association met this week in Chatham to update members on industry progress and research being done in Sarnia.

And they had a lot to talk about.

In November, the Ontario Innovative Sugarbeet Processors Cooperative formed and began to look for biochemical uses for sugar beets, adding to their economic viability in the area.

Ontario farmers, all of whom grow beets in Sarnia-Lambton or Chatham-Kent, currently ship their harvest to the U.S.-based Michigan Grower Company, though the newly-formed cooperative could see new and additional production move to Sarnia via a grower-owned production facility.

If that happens, Ontario sugar beet production would spike.

“There are economic advantages,” Rob McKerrall, newly-elected chair of the association, said Friday. “And [the proposed production facility] will give more growers opportunities to grow … they’ll need to pull from a broader area to get the acres.”

“It’s relatively easy to get into,” he added. “There’s specialized harvesting equipment required but standard planting equipment can be adapted … it’s not too terribly hard to get into.”

The proposed facility would be grower-owned, much like the facility in Michigan. The Sarnia Observer reported the greatest opportunities would be for growers in Kent, Lambton, Huron, and Middlesex counties, and a new facility could support 30,000 acres of sugar beet production in those places.

Sugar beets are currently grown in two places in Ontario: north of Chatham around the Wallaceburg and Dresden area, and east of Sarnia in the Forest and Wyoming area.

“This new, potentially new plant that they’re doing the research for, it’s still years away,” McKerrall said. “But it would probably be based on a similar quota-type system. Like a grower-owned operation. And it’s not … at that time [when it is completed] it would not be hard to incorporate beets into crop rotation.”

Sugar beet farming is not without its challenges. Disease is common among crops; according to McKerrall it’s less a question whether there will be disease, but when there will be disease. And current growers have to produce to U.S. specifications for a facility that caps Ontario production at 10,000 acres.

“[The Sarnia facility] would generate more jobs,” McKerrall said. “And there are many uses for the byproducts … new research for the Ontario facility is more on the biochemical side, not aiming for the sugar side of it. It’s biochemistry … a different form of green energy.”

The co-op is expected to conclude their research in about a year’s time.

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