Farming for foam & profit

By Patrick Raftis in Community
Gord Surgeoner, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.

Gord Surgeoner, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.

Farmers should think about producing foam, not food, when looking to enhance revenues in the future, says the president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.
Providing replacements for fossil fuels in products like plastics, foam and gasoline will be a growth area for the agricultural sector, in a country where a one-percent population growth rate, combined with increasing productivity, has created a glut of foodstuffs on the market.
”If we just stay in the traditional food market, our population is probably already overfed relative to the exercise and our production keeps going up and up and up. So really, we’ll just continue to have lower commodity prices,” stated Dr. Gord Surgeoner, the guest speaker at a public information meeting hosted by the Wellington Christian Farmers Association in Palmerston.
Surgeoner, a retired professor of Environmental Biology and Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, would like to see farmers get their fair share as new agriculture-based products and technologies are developed.
“One of the key things I want to do is ensure that some of the value from these new products stays down on the farm. It may not sound like a lot, but when I say you’re going to get an extra ten dollars an acre if we can have your corn cobs, given that I’ve already paid everything out for producing that corn on the grain side of the equation and now you’re giving me 10 dollars and acre; that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a 100-acre field, so here’s a cheque for a thousand dollars that I didn’t have to do anything for. Yeah, I don’t mind that kind of idea.”
Surgeoner says the domestic food market is oversaturated and population growth can’t possibly match the increased production levels Canadian farmers are capable of today.
However, he points out agriculture can’t possibly over-supply the emerging markets for fossil fuel replacements in products like foam, plastics and energy and should look into supplying those markets.
“And then our farmers would have to ask, ‘Do I want to sell it into this market, or that market?” And those markets could be fuel, they could be plastics, they could be energy for fermentation to make new products like rubber. There’s a whole plethora of new products that are coming out of agriculture where we’re taking starches and oils from agriculture and making pleather, foam, plastics — you name it, we can do it.”
The good news, said Surgeoner, is that farmers can take advantage of markets for new agriculture-based products without making major investments or changing the way they operate.
“We still use very much the corn and the soybeans. We will have identify-preserved varieties, so I have a certain variety of soybean for this industrial market, I have a certain kind of corn that is best for this kind of market and farmers would be paid for identity preservation — but, yes, it’s our traditional corn and soybean, just new customers.”
With little room for growth available in the domestic food market, various agriculture sectors are basically working against each other as they compete for market share. For example, consumers who decide to eat more pork will likely eat less beef or chicken.
However, Surgeoner says new markets are opening up every day for products farmers are already producing.
Surgeoner also believes Ontario farmers can take advantage of the markets for fossil fuel replacements without worrying about the on-going food versus fuel debate. Ever-increasing productivity and crop yields, he says, mean there is plenty of land available to grow corn and soybeans for use in new products.
“When I grew up we got 45 bushels of corn per acre. Now we’re averaging 165, so we keep going up in our productivity. Our population is growing at only about one per cent, much of that is aging, who consume less food and the other thing I really have to emphasize is, on average, Canadians are overfed relative to the exercise, too much food is causing massive medical bills that are translated into things like Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol and many other things. So we can keep increasing our productivity, which we have done historically over and over again. Hunger today is not because we don’t have enough food. I mean you go to any grocery store and look at all the food there …. Hunger today, in our culture, is distribution of wealth. In Third World countries, the last thing we want to do is simply dump cheap food into those nations and destroy their farmers. There will be emergency work, food is absolutely ‘we need it today,’ but we can’t just supply inexpensive food and destroy the incentive for their farmers. What we have to do is supply infrastructure. So, hunger really is a distribution of wealth issue, not a production issue.”
Surgeoner says technology is rapidly changing the way the world does business and farmers who adapt will continue to thrive.
Ontario Agri-Food Technologies is non-profit organization consisting of members from farm associations, universities, industry and governments. The organization focuses on ensuring that Ontario producers have access to the latest technologies to compete globally and to develop new market
opportunities.