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Valley soil perfect for growing sugar cane

October 27, 2001

EDITOR'S NOTE — This Part 2 of a three-part series detailing Imperial Bioresources LLC's plan to produce ethanol from Imperial Valley's sugar cane crop.

By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

The Imperial Valley's nitrogen-poor soil and arid climate might make it the perfect place to grow sugar cane.

Valley farmers Craig Elmore, Larry Fleming and Carson Kalin, co-owners of rural Brawley-based Imperial Bioresources LLC, say their sugar cane tests over the last three years show extraordinarily high yields and record sugar content in the Imperial Valley.

Local farmers supplement soil with nitrogen, the main nutrient for crops, and overcome the arid climate via irrigation. This gives them control over nutrient and water levels and allows them to regulate when plants sugar up, or ripen, Fleming said.

Harvests in the Valley are 50 percent higher in tonnage and 50 percent higher in sugar per acre than sugar cane harvests in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, where the climate gets more rain and the soil is rich in nitrogen, Elmore said.

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Cutting back nutrients and water triggers the plant into survival mode, where it stops growing and stores sugar, Fleming said.

Their results are corroborated by a University of California report made public earlier this month.

The Oct. 8 draft report on the economic feasibility of sugar cane-to-ethanol operations in the Imperial Valley was conducted by Michael J. Bazdarich, director of the UC Riverside Forecasting Center, and Paul G. Sebesta, director of the Desert Research Extension Center in Holtville.

The report was positive about plant yields and sugar content for sugar cane grown locally but warned access to Colorado River water is crucial to growing sugar cane.

Cane would be one of the higher water-use crops in the Valley, but it produces 100 tons of biomass per acre, Kalin said. Alfalfa, another high water-use crop, only produces 10 to 12 tons of biomass per acre, he said.

Biomass is the crop and crop waste, but the Bioresources farmers intend to use every part of the cane plant.

The group is planning to produce several products, including refined sugar, electricity and cattle feed, but the main product will be ethanol.

An ethanol production plant is being planned as an expansion of the Holly Sugar Plant in Brawley.

"If you look at the gross value of the water, sugar cane is probably its most efficient use," Kalin said.

The Bioresources group harvested its sugar cane this week using a sugar cane combine harvester from Louisiana.

The group plans to eventually purchase a minimum of 15 harvesters from Cameco Industries of Thibodeau, La., to harvest 20,000 acres in the Valley, Kalin said.

The cane harvester is designed specifically for sugar cane harvesting but can have problems with certain varieties of cane, Kalin said.

Some varieties of cane can get heavy with sugar and fall but keep growing toward the sun, he said.

The harvester can get caught in the tangle and forced to be cut out, Kalin said.

"It's good cane, because it's heavy with sugar, but it's a problem for the cane harvester," he said.

The cane harvested this past week was used for seed the following day at Ben Abatti's farm in Heber and Curt Corda's farm in Seeley, Kalin said.

The Bioresources farmers are growing 11 varieties of sugar cane but will only replant the four or five top producers, said Mike O'Leary, a consultant working with the Imperial Bioresources farmers.

O'Leary said the Imperial Bioresources farmers will eventually be interested in investors, but they still need to identify exact costs.

Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 760-337-3452 or la_mitchel1@yahoo.com

Next Sunday: Part III

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