The multiple benefits of switchgrass

Tonight, whenyousit down to dinner, count the differentfoodsyou’regoing to eat, and thenrealizethateach one travelled an average of 1,600 kilometres to get to your plate.

If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, pause also to realizethat at any one time, there’sonlyenoughfood in the GTA to last threedays. So if there’s a natural catastrophe thathalts transportation, there’sgoing to be a problemfeeding 4.5 million people.


Finally, as you’re about to pour the creamintoyour coffee, spare a thought for dairyfarmers, especiallythose in eastern Ontario where the rural economyissoprecariousthatfamilies continue to abandon the land, and a dark cloud hangs over the future since the United States wants us to scrap the Ontario Milk Marketing Board in the name of harmonizingour system withtheirs.


The alternative is to grow more foodhere. It wouldmeanfoodsecurity, an opportunity to strengthen rural economies, and at least a reduction in the environmentalmadness of truckingfoodfrom Mexico and California.


But growingourownfood in wintermeansgreenhouses, and they have been socostly to heatthatthey’venever been a real option.


However, maybethatcan change, thanks to a small group of researchersworking out of cramped offices in Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue on the western edge of Montreal. Theyoperate as a non-profit organizationwith the ponderousname Resource Efficient Agricultural Production, which translates neatlyinto REAP-Canada.


For tenyears REAP-Canada has been conductingresearchintoswitchgrass, discoveringthatitis a perfect substitute for hardwoodtrees in making fine paper, and, in pellet form, for oil in heating buildings.


Switchgrass, likehay, is a perennial, coming up everyyearwithoutplanting and without the need to ploughfields. It’s native to Ontario and willgrowtwometres high, even on marginal lands. The yield per hectare for pulp and paperwouldbeseven to ten times greaterthantrees, and the cost 20 per cent cheaper.


In the heating business itwouldcost about 30 per cent lessthanoil. It wouldalsocutgreenhousegasemissions by 90 per cent, because the amount of carbondioxideemittedduring one yearthroughburningwouldbetaken out of the air the followingyear as a new crop of switchgrassgrew.


The beauty of switchgrass for farmersisthatitcanbeharvested and deliveredwith the sameequipmentused for hay. And itcanbetransformedinto pellets with the sameequipmentused for creatingalfalfa pellets for livestock, after minor modifications are made to the equipment.


Untillately, a major problemwithswitchgrass pellets has been thattheyproduce more ashthan pellets made fromsawdust or otherlumberingwaste — 3 to 4 per cent ash for switchgrass as compared to 1 per cent for wood. Higherashlevelsimpeded the efficiency of existing pellet stoves.


Now, eventhatproblem has been solvedwith new switchgrass pellet stovesmanufactured by Dell-Point Technologies of Montreal.


Rupert Jannasch, executivedirector of REAP-Canada, estimatesthat marginal farmlands in eastern Ontario couldgrowenoughswitchgrass to displacehalf of Ontario’sconsumption of six million barrels of heatingoil a year.


He hopes to seefarmerscreatingco-ops to pelletizeswitchgrasssotheycan have a cheap heating fuel for theirfarms, and therebyestablish a base for switchgrassstoves to spread into the broadercommunity.


I hope to seeithappen as a means of providing an additional cash crop for farmers. And I’d love discoverthatgreenhousesbecame viable usingswitchgrass pellet stoves for heating, sothatwecoulddevelopfoodsecurity for Toronto and reducefood imports from Mexico and California.


These are the kinds of multiple benefitsthatsustainabilitycanprovide — environmentally, socially, and economically. It’swhatgovernmentofficialsshouldbethinking about as theydistribute infrastructure grants.



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