Spokane Journal of Business

Group plans ‘strawboard’ plants

Three facilities, including one in Spokane County, would cost about $15 million in all

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A consortium of wheat growers and others in Eastern Washington hopes to open at least three manufacturing plants, including one just south of Spokane, to make particle board out of straw.

Each of the factories would cost between $5 million and $5.5 million to build, would have about 40,000 square feet of floor space, and would employ around 30 people. A single plant would consume between 35,000 and 50,000 tons of straw annually and produce about 1 million 4-by-8, three-quarter-inch-thick sheets of straw particle board, also known as strawboard.

The plants likely would be built in the Fairfield-Rockford area, which is south of Spokane, and in Pasco and Moses Lake. A fourth possibly could be added in Whitman County.

If all goes as planned, construction could begin in the fall on the first of the plants, which could be open and operating in about a year. The first plant might be the Fairfield-Rockford one, although that decision hasnt been made.

Were trying to go at this as quickly as possible, says Don Phillips, a Harrington, Wash., wheat grower whos been working with the consortium on the project. The consortium includes the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG); the Agri-Business Commercialization & Development Center, of Richland; and a few other partners, who werent identified at their request.

Such a plant wouldnt be the first. A strawboard factory already is operating in North Dakota, and two others are under construction, in Kansas and in Manitoba, Canada.

Phillips, who is a co-chairman of a WAWG committee working on the project, says the strawboard can be used for any application where wood particle board is used, such as in laminated cabinets, countertops, and molding. Generally, strawboard costs about the same or slightly less than the higher-quality wood particle board ordinarily used for such purposes, he says.

Strawboard can be made out of wheat straw, grass straw, cornstalks, or rice straw. The straw is chopped into small pieces, combined with a resin, and pressed into sheets, which are then trimmed and sanded to produce the final product. Because of the type of resin used and the properties of the straw, strawboard tends to be more water and fire resistant and stronger than wood particle board, Phillips contends.

Dave Eakin, director of the agribusiness center, says he believes the consortium will be successful in opening the plants. The product has the added appeal of being made from straw, which is in abundant supply, rather than from trees, he says.

This is definitely a viable idea and provides another revenue stream for the wheat growers, says Eakin. The agribusiness center, which is operated jointly by Battelle Memorial Institute, Washington State University, the port of Benton, the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council, and the U.S. Department of Energy, has been seeking financing for the project and conducting technical and economic feasibility studies for it.Looking for fundingEakin says he believes the project will be able to garner funding from a variety of sources, including some wheat growers and other private investors, a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan program, a sale of industrial revenue bonds, and venture-capital groups.

The proposed factories would be owned by the investors in the consortium, he says. Besides investing with cash, growers also could become investors during the consortiums first year or two of operation by providing straw in exchange for equity, he adds.

Finding enough raw material for the plants should be easy, Eakin says. In a five-county area in the Columbia Basin alone, some 1 million tons of straw is produced annually, he says. That estimate doesnt include straw produced by wheat and grass growers in Spokane County, Whitman County, or the Walla Walla area, he says.

The greater challenge, Phillips says, will be drumming up interest from end users of the strawboard. So far, he says, hes aware of one cabinetmaker from Boise who has called about the project.

Still, Eakin says he believes finding end users wont be as difficult as it sounds. Cabinetmakers and other similar manufacturers should readily accept the product once they realize that the product meets their needs.

Meanwhile, Phillips says, growers are very interested in the project, because they stand to reap a number of benefits.

First, they would be paid for their straw. Theyd get $10 a ton as it lies on their fields, another $30 a ton if they baled it and transported it to the side of the road near the field, and an additional $10 a ton if they transported it to a strawboard plant.

Second, since growers often till under the straw left behind during harvest, they could save time and money by having most of their straw made into strawboard.

Third, in the case of wheat growers, they could use equipment during harvest that takes off just the head of the wheat. That would leave more straw to sell for strawboard, and would allow for more efficient harvesting and cleaner wheat, since there would be less extraneous material in the wheat. Cleaner wheat sometimes can be sold for higher prices.

Phillips says WAWG has been looking for ways to help growers get more value out of their crops.

Im concerned that agriculture needs to find its own answers, Phillips says.

  • Marlene Mehlhaff

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