Historic Sites of Manitoba: Elie Strawboard Plant (Elie, RM of Cartier)
In 1994, Isobord Enterprises Inc. proposed to the council of the RM of Cartier to build an environmentally-friendly and sustainable strawboard manufacturing plant in the village of Elie. The plan was to use wheat and oat straw, which is otherwise a waste product of Manitoba farms, to produce particleboard and medium-density fibreboard. Uses would include the manufacture of ready-to-assemble furniture, countertops, shelving, and cabinets. Elie was chosen because it was centrally located in an area of high wheat production. Between 1995 and 1998, a 215,000-square-foot plant was built on a 68-acre site at a cost of about $150 million. Construction was funded by a Canadian and four foreign banks, as well as the Crocus Investment Fund. It was supposed to be the largest plant of its kind in North America. The plant produced its first strawboard in August 1998, with 100 permanent employees working in shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Another 100 seasonal employees helped with straw collection in the fall. The grand opening of the plant occurred on 1 September 1999.
A group of 375 farmers within a 50-mile radius of the plant formed the Straw Board Producers Co-op of Manitoba Limited. They pledged to provide 80,000 tonnes of wheat straw and 40,000 tonnes of oat straw to the plant each crop year. Isobord employees would come onto their fields after harvest, bale the straw, and haul the bales back to the plant. The advantages to farmers were two-fold: it provided them with an additional source of income and it spared them the expense of having to deal with the straw in other ways. When running at full capacity, the plant would need 400,000 bales to meet its annual manufacturing output. The straw would be transported from farm fields as 1,200-pound round bales and stacked near the plant in one of three strawyards. A strawyard east of the plant site was owned by Isobord. A second was owned by a private owner was situated further east of the plant strawyard. A third strawyard was owned by a private owner south of the plant site. The plant bought 85,000 tonnes of straw in 1997, 160,000 tonnes in 1998, 145,000 tonnes in 1999, and 100,000 tonnes in 2000.
Every hour, 50 bales would be brought into the plant and broken apart. (The plant consumed 1,100 bales daily.) The straw was chopped into two-inch-long strips. Dirt, rocks and other debris was removed then the straw was dried then converted into fibers. Finer fibers were used for the surface of the boards while coarser fibers were for the core. A polyurethane resin called methyl di-isocyanate (MDI, used also to make oriented strand board or OSB), obtained from Dow Chemical, was added and the mixture was pressed at 120°C into mats measuring about ¾ inches thick. After a light sanding, the material was cut into 4 by 8 feet sheets weighing about 40 pounds each. The plan was to produce 130 million square feet of board, representing about two percent of the North American particleboard market.
Isobord Enterprises declared bankruptcy in December 2000 with outstanding debts of $57 million. Its assets were acquired by Dow Pipeline Limited (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, which renamed the company Dow Bioproducts Limited) in May 2001. With the greater resources of its new corporate owner, the strawboard plant was able to increase its product quality. But it was not enough. The Dow Bioproducts closed on 31 December 2005, throwing 68 employees out of work.
At least three reasons have been offered through the years for the plant’s failure: 1) the plant’s engineering design prevented it from reaching full production, 2) the product could not meet the quality standards demanded by furniture manufacturers, or 3) the plant could not compete successfully with well-established fibreboard manufacturers who used wood. Dow attributed the closure to “external market conditions, such as increasingly volatile feedstock and energy costs and lower-cost product competition.”
After efforts to sell the plant as a complete operation were unsuccessful, its machinery was sold and removed. The building was sold for other industrial uses. A lingering problem, however, was the abandoned straw in the plant’s three strawyards. The straw could not be burned for fear the resulting smoke would drift over the adjacent Trans-Canada Highway and be a hazard for drivers. The rotting bales could not simply be dumped onto farm fields because the plastic twine wrapping them would not break down and would therefore become a problem when farmers tilled their fields. And the straw stacks attracted hordes of rats. The Dow-owned strawyard was decommissioned by grinding the straw and spreading it on nearby agricultural land. This was completed by 2011. Bales in the east strawyard not owned by Dow were spread over the site and gradually incorporated. Some remnants persist at this site. The south strawyard continues to have decomposing bales onsite.
Those wanting to see an example of the Elie strawboard output should visit Dalnavert Museum. The distinctive brown panels on the walls of its Visitors Centre, opened in 2005, were made of strawboard manufactured at the Elie plant.
Photos & Maps
“Isobord Enterprises Inc: Wheat Fields of Dreams,” Woodworking Network.
“Bringing your investments home!,” Winnipeg Free Press, 10 January 1998, page 38.
“Isobord opens strawboard plant,” Wood & Wood Products, Vol. 103, No. 10, page 94, September 1998.
Isobord Enterprises website [http://www.isobordenterprises.com & http://www.isobord.com & http://www.dow-bioproducts.com], Wayback Machine, Internet Archive.
“Debt-protected straw plant blames woes on faulty design,” The Western Producer, 14 December 2000.
“Fields of strawboard,” Forestnet.
“Dow one of 3 bidders for Isobord,” Winnipeg Free Press, 14 April 2001, page 38.
“Dow buys Isobord assets,” Plastics News, Vol. 13, No. 16, page 28, 18 June 2001.
“Dow BioProducts to cease production and shutdown Elie manufacturing facility,” Globe and Mail, 15 November 2005.
“Fibreboard plant shuts its doors,” The Western Producer, 24 November 2005.
We thank Bruce Webb for providing information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 6 September 2018