CROWLEY – A Texas company may build a $75 million plant in Louisiana to use rice straw to make building material, according to an environmental brokering and marketing firm.

The company, Agriboard, already uses wheat straw, shipped from the Midwest, but rice straw is being considered instead because it produces a stronger product, said Jason Tournillon of New Orleans, a representative of GT Energy. He said the company makes a product similar to particle board and it has a federal contract for supplying construction projects in Iraq.

Two Louisiana officials are meeting with the company this month, he said, but Arkansas also is making a pitch. Tournillon recently met with rice farmers at the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station to find out if they could provide the amount of straw – 35,000 to 50,000 tons a year – needed for the plant’s feedstock.

Mike Salassi, an LSU AgCenter economist, said the proposal has potential because the company already is producing a marketable product. "The one advantage of it is this company is already doing this with wheat straw," Salassi said. "The process is already in operation."

Some rice straw is baled for cattle feed, but most of it remains in the field after rice is harvested. Salassi said if this proposal comes to fruition, farmers would have a way of making money to offset some of their costs. Tournillon said the company would pay in the neighborhood of $30 a ton, and long-term contracts would be offered.

Engineering work should be finished by the end of this month for a plant that would use rice straw, Tournillon said, and contracts could be offered as soon as May. Tournillon said the state is offering tax incentives for the company to relocate to southwestern Louisiana, but no site has been chosen. It would employ 75 workers, he said.

Area rice farmers agreed at the March 8 meeting that enough straw is available in Louisiana, but they listed a few possible problems, including the question of whether the straw could be allowed to remain in fields for several weeks before baling. Requiring the straw to be baled upon harvest of the rice crop, instead of waiting until drier weather, could cause rutting problems in the fields, the farmers said. A hurricane also could complicate matters, they agreed.

In addition, questions about storage problems need to be answered, LSU AgCenter rice specialist Dr. Johnny Saichuk pointed out. The company would either have to build a large storage facility or pay farmers to warehouse the straw until it would be needed, he said.

Two days after the meeting, Tournillon had some answers – but the storage question remains. The company requires stalk length of 14 to 18 inches, free from decomposition and mildew, he said.

Saichuk said that wouldn’t be a problem for many farmers who could harvest rice, then return to the fields two weeks later to mow the remaining straw and bale it. That would delay the second crop but make it more uniform, Saichuk said.

"I think it can work," Saichuk said. "I would like to see it happen."