"We’ve worked with like-minded organisations and individuals and we’re happy to say that in summer 2018 we hope to see the beginning of the construction of a sugar extraction plant."
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is the largest farm voluntary organisation in Canada and serves 37,000 members across the province and uses its broad knowledge to voice support for the sustainable farming industry on a range of issues and keep on top of regulatory and legislative matters.
The director of the OFA, Don McCabe, takes the hot seat for this week’s 5 Minutes With… and speaks to Bio-Based World News’ Dave Songer about how Ontario found its point of difference from its neighbouring US state, what the OFA’s focus is for 2018 and why there is cause for so much optimism in the sector.
Dave Songer (DS): What is the Ontario Federation of Agriculture's involvement in the bio economy?
Don McCabe (DM): It started around a decade ago when the bio-based economy was coming onto people’s radar – they saw it and we looked to see what we could do to get involved, help out and to represent farmers’ interests. The OFA has done a great deal of research and the first was into purpose-grown crops, such as switchgrass to see what the possibilities were. We realised early on we wouldn’t compete with Pennsylvania to our immediate south, which had a lot of natural gas, so we moved our energies to concentrate on a problem that we have in south western Ontario: improving corn yields. When it’s harvested there is too much corn stock left on the surface and as a farmer I can tell you it’s an issue.
We did a lot of work staring in 2012 to look at the sustainable removal of that corn stock that didn’t scrub the organic matter in the soil and we managed to turn it into a business case. Since then we’ve worked with like-minded organisations and individuals and we’re happy to say that in summer 2018 we hope to see the beginning of the construction of a sugar extraction plant in collaboration with the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative.
(DS): What do you most like about you role…
(DM): Finding out the next innovation and opportunity and most importantly the relationship building that allows you to combine the pieces together to bring together everybody’s ideas that they can bring to the marketplace.
(DS): Any advice for a budding bio entrepreneur?
(DM): I hope you don’t think this a crass answer, but one thing I’ve experienced is when someone who has dedicated tremendous energies into moving the technology along comes along who has never even spoken to anybody about the actual feedstock that underpins their research. People roll into southwestern Ontario looking for Jerusalem Artichoke – I can’t even spell that let alone grow it.
The reality is we have to work with what we’ve got: the farming community that we represent aren’t interested in risking a lot for something so far off the wall and that’s why it’s being able to work with corn stocks is absolutely beautiful solution.
(DS): What would you say is one of the big challenges facing the bioeconomy?
(DM): Well, I would say that educating and tempting the next generation of farmers to get involved in the future is a big challenge. 1.4% of Canadians are still farming and 98.6% are in town and we have a very big job to do because the reality is we’ve forgotten to tell people what it is and how we do it. It’s also vital we respect the soils because the bottom line is a farm can’t be moved, which isn’t the case with many other businesses.
Another big challenge is finance; it takes a pile of money to get even close to becoming a commercial entity and even then you’re not out of the woods.
(DS): What’s the OFA’s (@OntarioFarms) focus for this year?
(DM): We’re facing a June election in Ontario province so we’re spending a great deal of energy on attempting to influence platforms for the parties involved in this election. The overarching title for our campaign is ‘Producing Prosperity’ and underneath of that becomes the whole issue of luck. We need to make sure you guys understand that although farmer numbers are going down, the choice and the price of food is getting cheaper and at the same time we’re moving into emerging new things to help you out with even more opportunity and that means the bioeconomy.
This can’t be done in a vacuum and has to be done with proper infrastructure and communication techniques. So our Producing Prosperity banner allows us to delve into a lot of areas but essentially it’s all about maximising the environment that we have to bring profitability through while allowing society to further enjoy a boundless future.
(DS): World Bio Markets is next week and you’re going to speak at the show. What are you most looking forward to?
(DM): The networking opportunities and the chance to chat with people and expose them to the opportunities. From there we can demonstrate and illustrate to them we have the backbone and the infrastructure that we need because to go back to an earlier point – I can’t move the farm. At the end of the day, sugar is sugar and mother nature is clever: whether the material is corn, cactus, oranges or grass it’s all made of the same three things: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Learning is another great bonus of the show – there’s a wonderful agenda that’s been put together and it’ll be great to see what’s coming up next.
(DS): Finally then, can you tell me what you’re favourite bio-based product?
(DM): I hope you don’t think I’m dodging the question but I’d like to say that my favourite bio-based product hasn’t been invented yet. I say that because every time one product comes along you’ll see it’s been built on what came before it. We as an industry are getting better and better at efficiencies, remoulding things to new needs and exercises so I hope I’m not being hokey when I say I’m waiting for the next thing that allows me to do the thing I’m doing better than I’m doing today. I believe wholeheartedly that the bioeconomy will get better and stronger.
(DS): Brilliant to have spoken with you, Don. Thanks for taking part and I hope you enjoy World Bio Markets.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Stephanie Triau, Co-founder and CEO at Bioserie.
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