Former sugar beet growers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley are expected to learn next month whether they’ll be able to take the next step in an ambitious plan to return beets to the valley’s row crop mix to supply a $200 million biorefinery near Mendota, Calif.

Mendota Advanced Bioenergy Beet Cooperative and Mendota Energy, LLC are expected to find out in May whether the California Energy Commission will award the two groups $5 million to develop a pilot biorefiney capable of producing 1 million gallons of ethanol from 250 acres of beets harvested year-round within a 60-mile radius of the plant near Mendota.

If the 1/40 scale plant proves successful, the two groups, made up mostly of Spreckels sugar beet growers, would begin construction on a full scale plant to accept the first beets in June 2016 that could produce as much as 36 million gallons of ethanol in a year from 35,000 acres of beets.

The leadership of these groups held a series of meetings in communities surrounding Mendota recently to update growers on the progress of the project that started in 2008, when Spreckels Sugar (owned by Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op) announced it would close the beet factory in Mendota after more than 40 years of operation.

That left just one beet plant operating in the state. It is in Imperial Valley where 25,000 acres are grown. At one time there were 11 sugar mills and 330,000 acres of beets in California, which is the birthplace of the industry in the U.S. America’s first sugar mill was established in 1870 at Union City, Calif., in Alameda County.

When Southern Minnesota announced the closure of the Mendota plant, growers who delivered beets there tried to buy or lease the facility. That did not work out, but the growers were not deterred.

“We looked at the situation and said do we want to grow beets for sugar or ethanol. Ethanol made better sense,” said John Diener, Five Points, Calif., producer and one of the leaders of the current effort. The group plans to develop the beets-to-ethanol plant just east of the Mendota airport.

The group initially received a $72,000 USDA value-added product grant for a feasibility study. That was completed in 2009. The next year the group was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission to further examine the viability of processing sugar beets, as well as farm waste products for fuel and energy.