Opinion

Saskatchewan’s push towards developing value-added processing industries has been accelerating in recent years. Just this year, three canola crush plants have either been announced as new builds or expansions.

But canola isn’t the only agri-processing moving ahead, as Red Leaf Pulp recently announced its plans to build a wheat straw-based pulp mill at Regina, Sask. The company says its plant “will have the capacity to produce 182,000 tonnes of market pulp annually from waste straw.”

The announcement is being met with a fair bit of skepticism, and for good reason.

First of all, that “waste” is another person’s treasure, and secondly, is that straw even for sale? Nevermind an enticing price per pound, because that wheat straw is worth more to a farmer when it’s put back into the soil than it is processed into a paper product or building material.

Red Leaf Pulp cites proximity to major infrastructure and a significant workforce as key factors in their decision to build at Regina, but did they consider supply? The supply needed to produce those 182,000 tonnes might be hard to come by.

Regions with more rainfall and excess straw, such as northeastern and east central Saskatchewan, might be more willing to part with it, but that means factoring in the cost of delivering that straw to the mill.

Then, there’s the history and track records of similar plants in Western Canada.

Back in the 90s at Elie, Man., Isobord’s straw board plant was not successful, declaring bankruptcy in December of 2000. Their successor, Dow Bioproducts, attributed the closure to “external market conditions, such as increasingly volatile feedstock and energy costs and lower-cost product competition” according to the Manitoba Historical Society.

Three other factors were attributed to the failure of Isobord and the subsequent failing of Dow Bioproducts in 2005: the engineering design of the plant prevented it from reaching full production; the product could not meet quality standards demanded by furniture manufacturers; and, the plant could not compete successfully with well-established fibreboard manufacturers who used wood.

Great Plains MDF’s wheat straw medium-density fibreboard (MDF) plant, located at Equity, Alta., is also slated to begin production runs beginning in fall of 2021.

Is this just going to be another kick at the same can? What’s different between the ’90s and now?

While the drive for a particleboard and MDF plant at Elie was from an environmental standpoint, their location was in the centre of high-straw producing areas, where farmers had excess, and were willing to sell. And yet, they still failed.

In the current environment, however, straw is seen as a carbon-neutral material, and could have the advantage in the carbon economy, as opposed to conventional wood- and oil-based materials.

Now, if farmers were to collect straw from their fields, a more ingenious product than cigarette paper or other paper products could be created — pelletized straw would make an excellent fuel source for biomass-fuelled grain dryers, as alluded to by a recent announcement by the federal government.

Perhaps that would be the fuel required to make this business idea successful.

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