The president of the Ontario Sugar Beet Growers’ Association wants Lambton County to return to its sugary roots.
Mark Lumley, who grows sugar beets with the Michigan Sugar cooperative in Croswell, Michigan from his Confederation Line farm, is spearheading a drive to build a $100 to $200 million sugar production facility in Sarnia-Lambton.
Up until the 1960’s, sugar beets were a popular crop in Lambton County. But around 1967, the federal government allowed countries like Brazil, Cuba and the Dominican Republic to dump their cane sugar in the Canadian market.
That led to the collapse of the Ontario sugar beet industry. In the past few decades, about 20 local farmers have brought back the sugar beet crop, working with Michigan Sugar. “The climate, the soil, and the geography are all really good for growing sugar beets…government policies changed to make it not feasible – the northern climate is perfect for growing beets.”
Recently, the co-op announced a $57 million retooling of the Croswell plant where Lambton’s beets are process, which has been in operation since 1902. Lumley, a co-op member, says it will make processing the 165,000 acres of beets faster. The beets from about 10,000 of those acres come from Ontario – 3,500 from Lambton.
But Lumley says if a plan to build a processing plant in Sarnia-Lambton’s bio industrial park takes flight, there will be a lot more beets in the ground.
Lumley’s association is in the middle of a feasibility study for the plant and he says so far all the market conditions look right.
Lumley says when Redpath Sugar first started using foreign sugar in the Canadian market, it lowered prices to consumers. The company, he says, has moved the price of sugar up, taking full advantage of lower prices for raw product to make huge profits. “Redpath is making a killing off the price of world sugar and the cost of domestic sugar.”
But with changes to technology and the massive improvement in yields for the crop – farmers can harvest almost double from one acre than they did in the 60s – Ontario farmers can now compete with world-sugar prices. “We can afford to sell sugar at the same cost they are, we produce it the same price they are,” says Lumley.
And he says there are more opportunities to use the sugar beet’s by-product to make money in the bio-industrial field. “There are added products to sell like glucose to Bio Amber to make bio succinic acid…and there is still a use for ethanol…There are a number of bio-industrial products that need carbon and sugar beets are the most efficient products to make carbon.”
Lumley says the preliminary studies are “very promising” and the association is working on a more detailed study which should be complete in the next four months.
Lumley says the farmers currently growing for Michigan Sugar are interested in expanding their sugar beet acreage and other farmers are “waiting with cheque book in hand to sign up for shares” to be part of a co-op growing and producing sugar from about 20,000 to 30,000 acres of beets. “Right now beets pay about $500 an acre more than the next best crop, which would be corn or soybeans,” he says.
Lumley says that could pump an extra $10 to $15 million into the pockets of farmers – that’s without counting the spin off benefits.
Lumley says if all goes well, a new plant in Sarnia could be producing sugar in five years ending 40 years of dependence on foreign nations for our sugar. “I’m very optimist,” he says. “There are very few foods we rely so heavily from the foreign markets…that we are so good at producing in our climate.”