STARBUCK, Wash. — A private company plans to build a multimillion-dollar plant four miles west of Starbuck to convert wheat and alfalfa straw into pulp.

The plant will require approximately 240,000 tons of straw annually. The company, Columbia Pulp, Dayton, hopes to get that from farms within a 75-mile radius, said John Begley, manager and CEO. The plant will produce 140,000 tons of paper-grade pulp per year that will be sold to packaging and personal care product companies, he said.

The 150,000-square-foot facility will cost in the “tens of millions of dollars” and should open in the fall of 2015, Begley said. The company is beginning to get Columbia County permits and met with county commissioners Dec. 18.

“The project has strong environmental and economic benefits,” Begley said. “It will reduce field burning in the region and be an economic boom to Southeastern Washington.”

The plant will employ more than 130 people, probably bringing new residents to Starbuck and Dayton, he said. Starbuck’s population is 127 and Dayton, 22 miles to the south, has a population of 2,473.

More than 10 years ago, the state Department of Ecology asked farmers to reduce the burning of wheat stubble after harvest, said Byron Seney, a Dayton grower.

“After bluegrass growers in the Spokane area lost their burning, it kind of hit home to us,” Seney said.

Burning is done to remove stubble for planting. Columbia County farmers began tilling more stubble under but that increases soil erosion, Seney said. He and seven other growers began looking for other ways to remove wheat stubble to make no-till planting easier. They gained the help of University of Washington professor Mark Lewis, who designed a non-pressurized system of pulping wheat straw. A little alfalfa is added to brighten the pulp, Seney said.

Phoenix Pulp and Polymer, Seattle, with which Lewis is affiliated, developed the system, Seney said. Columbia Pulp obtained exclusive regional use of the technology, Begley said.

Seney said there's ample straw to feed the plant, but growers may be reluctant to bale from steeper hillsides so Columbia Pulp is drawing from the larger 75-mile radius.

Seney built and patented equipment in 2012 that allows Case International 535 quadtrac tractors to swath and bale wheat stubble at the same time. His Quadbaler is designed to harvest and bale stubble on hillsides too steep for conventional swathers and balers. That equipment, he said, could help farmers bale more straw.

The plant will have a big impact on the market of straw sold to dairies and feedlots for feed and bedding and to mushroom producers in Canada, Seney said.

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