Manitoba farmers could see a lucrative new market for straw emerge, as the province moves closer to becoming the site of North America's first pulp and paper mill using straw.
Prairie Pulp + Paper Inc. launched a new printer paper containing 80 per cent straw this summer, and if the product is a hit with consumers, the company will build a paper mill in rural Manitoba, said president Jeff Golfman.
"It would be a whole new value chain... a way to support our farmers and stop stubble burning," he said.
The $500 million venture would employ as many as 300 people, producing 215,000 tonnes of paper each year, Golfman said.
It would also need straw -- between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes each year, requiring input from an estimated 400 to 500 farmers.
"It would mean a huge amount of cash for farmers in Manitoba," he said. "Right now straw doesn't go for very much, maybe pennies on the dollar, most of it is tilled or burned."
Exactly how much farmers would be paid for their straw remains to be determined.
So does whether or not the state-of-the-art facility moves ahead and when. Prairie Pulp + Paper's next move depends on the public's reception of the straw-based product, sold under the name Step Forward Paper.
Golfman said it would take a paper "connoisseur" to notice the difference between the straw-based paper and one made using primarily wood fibre, adding the straw-based product has an advantage over its wood-based competitors.
"There's less dust," said Golfman.
That means printers stay cleaner and require less maintenance, he noted. Step Forward Paper also caused far fewer paper jams than conventional paper during product trials.
"Paper made from leftover straw produces high quality and performance that compares with other copy and printer papers," said Pete Gibel, a vice-president with Staples Canada, the exclusive Canadian retailer of the product.
"It's an easy and cost-effective way for consumers and small businesses to conserve our world's forests without sacrificing quality," he said.
Retailing at $6.99 for a 500-sheet package, the president said the paper is priced on par with other environmentally friendly stationary products.
But for Golfman, who developed Winnipeg's blue box program 22 years ago, the development of straw-based paper is about marrying environmentalism with sound and sustainable business practices, while supporting rural economies.
"These things can work together," he said.
Fourteen years in the making, Step Forward Paper is currently being manufactured in India, but the company hopes to assess whether there is enough consumer support to build a plant in Canada within the next year or so.
The next phase of production would also move to paper manufactured with a 100 per cent straw content. Currently, 20 per cent of Step Forward Paper is made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood fibre.
Other Manitoba companies have also turned to agricultural byproducts in an attempt to protect old growth forests.
Schweitzer-Maudit's plant outside of Carman is the largest flax fibre processing plant in North America. The fibre it produces is used to make paper for cigarettes and religious texts.
-- Shannon VanRaes is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator in Winnipeg. A version of this article appeared in the Aug. 30, 2012 edition of the Co-operator.