ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP — The seed of an idea planted by Aloterra Energy five years ago is about to be harvested in a big way at their new production facility in Ashtabula Township.

The company that blends agriculture and manufacturing is launching a facility on Middle Road that will soon churn out millions of biodegradable food containers and a non-wood pulp — all created from miscanthus, a bamboo-like plant that grows in Ashtabula County.

Aloterra has kept a relatively low profile since its arrival, but Scott Coye-Huhn, an owner of the business, says it's time to let the area know the business is ready to hit its stride.

"We've finally put the whole system together," Coye-Huhn said. "The loop is closed. Now it's time to tell the community this thing is real."

The story began a few years ago, when Aloterra planted a few acres of miscanthus, a perennial, in the county. The plant is a large, warm-season Asian grass that can grow in marginal soil not necessarily suitable for other crops.

Initially, Aloterra envisioned the plant as the source of a renewable, liquid fuel. Instability in the fuel production industry, however, prompted the company to consider other uses for its grass.

"The (financial) risk was really, really high," Coye-Huhn said.

Today, at Aloterra's Andover Township facility, miscanthus grown in the county is transformed into an absorbent material used to sop up spills. The next step is a pulp created from the plant will be shaped into compostable food packaging containers, such as plates and to-go boxes. The containers will be stamped into shape by six machines in a portion of the 45,000-square foot Aloterra facility on Middle Road in Ashtabula Township. Production is scheduled to begin soon.

Restaurants and food companies are keen to "go green" in their packaging, and interest in the environmentally-friendly product is high, Coye-Huhn said. At full production, the machines will fashion 10 million pieces per year, and all are pre-sold, Coye-Huhn said.

The Middle Road building will also house a pulp mill that will create a non-wood fiber product for the paper industry. Coye-Huhn predicts 30 people will be working in the facility by the end of the year. Aloterra now employs 25 at all its operations, he said.

The key to the entire operation is miscanthus, which Aloterra grows and harvests on 4,000 acres across Ashtabula County. Earlier this month, the USDA announced it will help finance the company's search for another 3,000 acres to grow more of the grass. The search is on for more acreage in the area, Coye-Huhn said.

While government funding has helped Aloterra's launch, much more has been invested in private capital, Coye-Huhn said.

"We've brought in $22 million in private dollars that have been invested in the county," he said. "For every dollar in federal money received, there have been four dollars in private (capital)."

On Sunday, Aloterra will welcome landowners, farmers and government officials who have been invited to examine the Ashtabula Township facility. The can also expect to hear some sincere thank-you's from the Aloterra staff.

"Everyone's been phenomenal," Coye-Huhn said. "They got it from the beginning. We're very, very grateful." 

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