TOP STORY, Dec. 6, 2016
Paper plant aims to buy straw from farmers, provide fertilizer
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
A $2 billion manufacturing plant under construction in Virginia’s Chesterfield County intends to turn a byproduct for farmers into a farm-ready fertilizer — and paper products.
The Chinese company Shandong Tranlin Paper Co., which is doing business in the United States under the name Vastly, has more than 200 patents on its complex process to turn wheat straw from local farms into pulp for paper products and soil amendments that are then sold back to farmers.
The plant will extract humic acid from the straw, a process Vastly executives say is a cleaner alternative than deriving it from coal, as is the case with many comparable products.
“What’s interesting about our humic and fulvic acids is that they’re derived from plants and for plants,” said Ian Ayers, Vastly’s director of digital strategy. That means “the molecules are so much smaller and that can help make the organic acids more available to the plants.”
Vastly is looking for farmers interested in testing the product on their own soil and those willing to sell their wheat straw to the plant once it is up and running.
That process, however, could take a while. While the 850-acre facility plans to employ about 2,000 people by 2020, the company’s leadership first has to wade through a prolonged process of collecting the 20-plus permits necessary to operate a first-of-its-kind facility in the state.
To that end, Vastly brought on as a senior adviser Bob Burnley, former director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, which will issue many of the permits, in part to help them navigate the permitting minefield.
Vastly will, for example, need to purchase credits for nitrogen and some phosphorous from the state’s trading program to maintain its wastewater discharge permit, because the state decided a decade ago, during Burnley’s tenure, that the Chesapeake Bay had reached its capacity for nitrogen and phosphorous discharges from such industrial facilities.
Despite the obstacles, Burnley said the company is bringing a technology to the states that doesn’t exist here and that “I think is really going to demonstrate to all of us how manufacturing should be done.”
Yue Zhu, Vastly’s director of strategic development, said it might take 18 more months to acquire the permits alone, and then another two years for construction to be complete. The plant would then open around 2019 to produce between 200 and 400 metric tons of paper products per year.
Those paper products, including paper towels and bath and facial tissue, will be a light brown or “wheat” color because the manufacturer does not use the bleaching chemicals that have created environmental issues at other paper mills.
At full capacity, the plant will also produce about a half-million metric tons of its “biostimulant” fertilizer product, the company said. Vastly already has a sales license from the commonwealth, where farmers and home growers can now purchase the China-made equivalent of their product, called BetterRoots.
Though one of the company’s “earth restorative” goals is to eventually reduce the amount of chemically derived fertilizer farmers use on their crops by replacing it with this product, Zhu said much research is still needed to ensure farmers’ yields wouldn’t be affected.
“That’s our goal — to encourage more farmers to switch to an organic biostimulant like ours and reduce their chemical fertilizer, but we don’t want to rush into it,” he said.
Kevin Engel, owner and operator of Engel Family Farms, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and other plants on land in 17 Virginia counties, is one of the farmers who has tried the Vastly product.
He said his initial results with the product were “positive” and merited further study.
In China, Tranlin has been growing for three decades largely because it created a market for the straw byproduct from farmers’ wheat harvests, which had typically been burned in the field.
For farmers who had typically left their straw in the field to compost or sold it to the construction industry, Zhu said this might provide another option.