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Our Opinion: A sweet prospect

July 30, 2001

Louisiana company has a plan for the Imperial Valley that just might bring the sweet taste of prosperity to our area.

Arkel Sugar, Inc. of Baton Rouge wants to take the byproducts of Imperial Valley sugar cane and sweet sorghum crops and use those products at a plant it would build in the Valley to produce ethanol for power. According to Arkel, the plant and its related operations could bring 4,500 much-needed jobs to the Valley, would strengthen the local agricultural industry, which has been struggling in recent years, and would not create significant pollution problems. On top of that, Valley farmers could double dip, making money from the crops and then making money again from what's left over after harvest.

Does it sound too good to be true? Well, it may not be, but a lot has to happen for the plan to come to fruition.

First the company needs 38,000 acres of sugar cane growing and 34,000 acres of sweet sorghum growing in the Valley before it fires up the plant. That is the first dilemma because there are fewer than 1,000 acres of both sugar cane and sweet sorghum planted in the Valley. But recent experiments done by University of California researchers have shown sugar cane can flourish here as a commercial crop, and with markets for other traditional Valley crops anywhere from bad to mediocre, it might be easy to entice Valley growers to try sugar cane. Whether the company can get 38,000 acres of sugar cane and 34,000 acres of sweet sorghum is another matter.

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The ethanol plant, which would create 50 megawatts of power annually over 330 production days, would employ 400 people on its own. That would be wonderful for a valley constantly plagued by huge unemployment numbers and always on the lookout for new jobs.

Those would likely be steady jobs, as would most of the related jobs created by the plant. Our growing state and nation are always looking for new power sources and our national sweet tooth only seems to be getting stronger. Holly Sugar, which has a plant south of Brawley that handles the Valley's already significant sugar beet crop, may be willing to expand its operations to handle the sugar cane crop.

A broker working with the company has said early responses from potential investors in the Arkel project have been good. Arkel would need to get growers on board in 30 to 45 days, so company officials are going to have to start getting farmers in line soon.

If everything comes together, and that is a huge if, this could be one of the biggest economic projects in the Valley in decades.

Let's keep our canes crossed.

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