Image contributed by Columbia Pulp
Farmers in Eastern Oregon and Washington may soon have another option for selling their leftover wheat straw after harvest, turning a potential source of waste into a source of cash.
A new pulp mill is under construction near Lyons Ferry along the Snake River in southeast Washington that will turn straw, as opposed to wood, into material for making household products such as paper towels and tissues
Columbia Pulp, based in Dayton, Washington, held a groundbreaking ceremony Sept. 27 and CEO John Begley said the mill could be up and running by late next year. Once completed, it will take 250,000 tons of straw per year and produce 140,000 tons of market-grade pulp.
Though the plant is located an hour northeast of Walla Walla, Begley expects a portion of the straw will be sourced from Umatilla County.
“We are reaching into Eastern Oregon, down into the Milton-Freewater area,” Begley said.
The mill gives farmers another market for straw, paying for a product that might otherwise be burned or plowed into the ground. Columbia Pulp predicts it will revitalize the local straw industry with $13 million in annual purchases, while also cutting back on air emissions from burning fields.
“It’s an incentive to the grower, because they are now getting revenue for something that used to be a cost,” Begley said.
The process used by Columbia Pulp to spin straw into paper was first developed by Mark Lewis and William McKean, two University of Washington professors and company co-founders. Begley, who spent more than 40 years in the pulp and paper business, came out of retirement four years ago to help move the project forward.
Unlike traditional mills, Begley said turning straw into pulp does not require the same high-intensity system as cooking with wood. Instead, the $184 million Lyons Ferry mill will operate at atmospheric conditions, without using sulfur that generates a characteristically foul smell.
The mill will not generate any discharge, and byproducts such as cellulose, lignin and carbohydrate polymers will also be sold to make dust abatement and deicer products.
The closest town to the mill is Starbuck, Washington — population 130 — and Begley said the project will add roughly 100 jobs and $70 million to the local communities.
“It has a huge economic impact for the area,” he said.
Part of that benefit extends to wheat farmers, who will pocket between $5 and $10 per ton of straw, according to Begley. The company has already contracted enough straw for three years, he said, with plenty more still available.
“As this thing evolves, we’ll get more people involved,” Begley said.
Stewart Wuest, a soil scientist and researcher at the federal Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center north of Pendleton, said he is in favor of farmers getting the most value out of the land, but cautioned that removing too much material could lead to a dip in crop production.
Not only does wheat straw provide cover for erosion and help retain more moisture in a low-rainfall area, but leaves behind nutrients for plants including phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium.
“(Farmers) need to watch to make sure they’re not giving away productivity,” Wuest said.
Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist for Oregon State University, said the threshold for losing crop productivity depends on field rotation and yields, but he considers 50 bushels per acre to be the break-even point. Beyond 50 bushels per acre, Wysocki said it is not very practical to bale straw off the land without paying too much more for additional nutrients in the form of fertilizer.
“Whenever you harvest straw, you’re exporting nutrients,” he said. “You just have to be cognizant of replacing those, and what the cost is.”
Berk Davis, a wheat farmer near Adams and board member for the Umatilla County Soil and Water Conservation District, said he leaves about 50 percent of the stubble left over after harvest on the ground, while baling and harvesting the rest.
If the pulp mill is successful, Davis said it could add even more value to the product, which would be good news for growers.
“It could potentially become an important piece of the agriculture around here, absolutely,” he said.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.