BY SEAN KELLY, TRANSCONTINENTAL MEDIA
The Nova Scotia Business Journal
SCOTSBURN – It was very much like the pitch of a travelling salesman: the positive talking points came easy but the catch was hard to discern. About 100 farmers and their families showed up at Sandy Stewart’s Scotsburn farm Thursday morning to listen to representatives of Atlantec Bioenergy Corporation’s plan to transform a part of this province’s agricultural landscape into an ethanol-producing hub.
It was the third tour presented by ABC and it drew in farmers from a 40 km radius, from Stewiacke to River John and back to Pictou. Ron Coles, the spokesperson for the company, says ABC doesn’t pretend to be the solution to the agriculture crisis facing food-crop producers, but he will promise a long-term commitment from the company.
ABC has its eye on a part of the TrentonWorks facility and has put in a bid. Within the month, Coles said it’s likely they’ll hear back from the receiver whether or not they’ll be able to set up shop there. And ABC hopes farmers will settle into the idea of growing energy beets. “We hope to hear something positive back on Trenton,” he said. “We want to be part of this site.”
Trenton, he tells the crowd, would be a perfect fit. The plant would require access to rail and water to bring in the beet crop. Trenton has both.
Before a healthy looking field of beets, farmers asked questions about the crop itself, soil fertility and PH levels among other issues. How much would they have to grow to get a foot in the door with ABC? Absent were the questions of politics and cash – many appeared to be simply investigating a new and potentially lucrative crop.
In the middle of a presentation George Smith, a farmer from Central West River, walked out into the field, bent down and picked a beet from the ground. After brushing the dirt off, he cut it up with a pocket knife and had a bite. Later he says he thinks the crop has potential.
Rick Williams, a former farmer from Salt Springs, with 20 years’ experience, says the same. “The climate is certainly right for it.” Williams is talking to Fred Martens, a P.E.I. farmer who, for the past two years has planted an energy beet crop.
“It’s a nice crop to grow,” Martens said. “It’s not labour intensive – you need good fertilizer for it. It definitely has a place in the rotation.”
ABC had contracts available for farmers, two separate ones for farmers to choose from. The company is at the point now where it has established it can encourage farmers to grow beets, and it knows where it wants to call home. Now it’s a question of whether the pieces fall into place – that’s the catch.
Energy crops are new to the Maritimes but they aren’t new to North America. And, it’s fair to say that agricultural policies, particularly in the U.S., have given them a bad rap. It’s established that corn can produce fuel – but many argue corn is a poor choice for an energy crop for a number of reasons. The first and most important is that the amount of fuel produced from corn is only marginally higher than the amount of fuel required to fertilize, grow and transport it. This is and has been at the very heart of the food vs. fuel debate for as long as energy crops have been on the table.
Coles says he doesn’t mind that people are bringing up the debate in considering whether or not to switch to energy beets. But he does say current corn ethanol technologies are still too inefficient to be viable. “I think one of the key things here is that this is a totally different technology that you would see on the Internet – especially in terms of energy conversion,” he says.
He makes the claim that these beets will produce six times the amount of energy that conventional corn ethanol would. Another innovation this company wants to introduce comes in the area of nutrient development and sustainable crop rotation. Basically, the facility itself will generate plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus potassium, etc.) to supply its crops.
It is new “cutting edge” technology, Coles says, developed within the last few years. Also, there’s the amount of land required for production. Coles said ABC will require somewhere in the vicinity of 17,500 acres of beets when operating at full capacity.
These days, everybody wants to buy into green energies, Coles says. Banks are aware of developments in bioenergy. But when it comes to newer technologies, he adds, they’ll rather invest in established means of production. Good news for corn ethanol but, he says, investors may give beets a short shrift. “They might not know this industry – but they do know corn and they know the industry so they’ll invest in it.”
Then there’s the confidence of the farmers, who may choose to enter into a contract with Atlantec Bioenergy Corp. At the very outset of the tour, Coles mentioned that the company had initially planned to set up shop on Prince Edward Island. It had designs on an $85 million ethanol plant in Borden-Carleton and had 40 growers on standby, ready to put beets into the ground by May. But the projected derailed when the P.E.I. government decided not to provide any funding for the project. Atlantec Bioenergy pulled up roots and relocated.
Coles explained ABC was contacted by the Nova Scotia government and it appears the provincial government is keen on picking up where P.E.I. left off. And this time, ABC isn’t looking for government money. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that we’re the same company. I think we’ve validated ourselves since P.E.I.,” Coles says. “The marketplace is bigger here, whereas on P.E.I. a lot of sales would have to be for export.”
The company is also interested in making farmers equity partners in the whole venture. Through a funding program called ecoABC, the federal government is offering $200 million for farmers who want to invest in bioenergy facilities and the company is hoping farmers take advantage of it. According to an FAQ prepared by ABC, the company wants farmers to take a 30 per cent stake in the business.
“We don’t want farmers to be producing another commodity,” Coles says. Also unlike P.E.I., the plan in Nova Scotia is to sell primarily to Nova Scotians.
Earlier this year, Bill C-33 was passed. It requires gasoline to contain five per cent ethanol beginning in 2010. The Maritimes are currently the only place in Canada where ethanol fuels aren’t available at the pump. – The News