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Sugar cane can be profitable crop, field day presenters say

December 07, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Local farmers and farm equipment sales people attended a sugar cane field day Thursday at the Desert Research and Extension Center in rural El Centro.

Presentations and guest speakers from the University of California, the California Energy Commission and the Imperial Irrigation District showed attendees how sugar cane could be a profitable crop to produce ethanol in the Imperial Valley.

Ethanol is a replacement for the gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ethers. MTBE is a crude oil byproduct used to reduce carbon monoxide in gasoline but has been found to pollute groundwater. It is being phased out by the federal government starting in 2003.

A report in March by the California Energy Commission shows the state has a future as a large market for ethanol. The commission estimates ethanol demand in 2003 will range from 580 million to 715 million gallons per year.


There are other fuel additives but they are expensive, state energy commission technical adviser Michael McCormack said. Any new fuel additive needs to be approved and go through an environmental review, he said.

Paul Sebesta, director of the UC Desert Research and Extension Center, and Michael Bazdarich, director of the UC Riverside Forecasting Center, completed a report Monday on the economic feasibility of sugar cane-to-ethanol operations in the Imperial Valley.

Their report shows trial sugar cane harvests in the Valley are 50 percent higher in tonnage and 50 percent higher in sugar per acre than harvests in Louisiana, where sugar cane is a mainstay crop.

McCormack said the state Legislature asked the energy commission to do a costs and benefits study. The Legislature determined it is in the state's best interest to produce ethanol in the state.

Economist Michael Bazdarich said foreign produced ethanol should not offer much competition. Ethanol attracts moisture and needs to be carefully shipped, making the cost of shipping overseas too expensive, he said.

Imperial Bioresources is one local sugar cane-to-ethanol project that plans to expand the Holly Sugar Plant in rural Brawley to include ethanol processing.

According to the Brawley-based Imperial Bioresources owners, Craig Elmore, Larry Fleming and Carson Kalin, the plant will be ready to start processing cane in November 2004. The cost to expand the plant will run well over $100 million.

Another project is the Imperial Valley Sugarcane Growers Association, a grower group formed by Claude Finnell of El Centro and William Batley Jr. of Brawley.

The association is looking for members interested in growing sugar cane and sweet sorghum in the Valley for a new ethanol plant. Arkel Sugar of Baton Rouge, La., is looking to build a sugar cane-to-ethanol plant in the Valley.

>> Contact the Imperial Valley Sugarcane Growers Association at 352-0269 or 213-0097.

>> For more information on the Internet:

U.C. Riverside Forecasting Center:

Arkel Sugar:

Imperial Bioresources:

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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