Farmers form new co-operative to produce sugar from corn stover

Stover bale resized

Corn stover made into bales in-field.

A small group of Ontario farmers has come together to form Ontario’s newest co-op.

The Cellulosic Sugar Producers’ Co-operative is working on creating a new market opportunity for corn stover – the leaves, stalks, and other parts of the plant left over after corn kernels have been harvested – by turning it into sugar that will help in the manufacture of bio-based chemicals and biofuels.

This will reduce dependence on non-renewable resources as well as provide new revenue streams for what are currently considered agricultural waste products or under-used resources.

“It’s a very small group right now but the whole premise is to get to the stage where we can have a sugar mill producing sugar from corn stover,” explains Murray McLaughlin of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), an organization involved in facilitating the commercialization of green and sustainable technologies.

M McLaughlin

Murray McLaughlin

“We’re probably still two years away from getting off the ground in terms of sorting what the technology for the sugar mill would be, but it would be the co-op that would be the partners to a sugar mill to provide the corn stover or other biomass,” he adds.

McLaughlin says Ontario farmers have become so efficient at producing corn that there is now too much stover left in the fields, and it should be removed in order to maintain soil health and productivity.

He is currently involved in a biomass to sugars research project that is evaluating and making recommendations on the economics, availability and supply of biomass like corn stover and wheat straw, as well as available conversion technologies and potential markets.

The ultimate goal is to bring a full scale, commercial cellulosic sugar plant to southern Ontario by 2018/19; forming the farmer co-op is an important step in establishing the new supply chain.

“Most of our co-op members currently are in the Ontario corn belt area of Lambton, Middlesex and Chatham-Kent, but we’d like to see this eventually go across the province. There will be more than one mill needed in the future,” he says.

Chaired by farmer Dave Parks, the initial role of the nine-member co-op is building membership.

Its board meets quarterly to receive updates on the progress of the research project, and will be ramping up marketing and promotion activities about to raise awareness and attract new members.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture co-ordinated a demonstration of corn stover harvesting equipment last year at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock in September and also on a farm in Lambton county in November.

McLaughlin says together, these two events attracted over 1000 people, proving that there’s interest in the new opportunity amongst the farming community.

Canada’s bioeconomy is evolving from an early focus on ethanol to a whole breadth of bio-based products and opportunities that will add value to many agricultural co-products that aren’t currently being used.

The biomass to sugars project is funded through Growing Forward 2, a provincial-federal-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of Growing Forward 2 in Ontario.