Everyone has their own approach to rural development and renewal, and many of them involve finding a niche, so residents there have something to do, or buy or sell, to make a living. Rural development efforts without clear employment prospects miss the point – if we want the countryside to be someplace we like to visit and play, somewhere we get great food and fresh water, someone has to be there to keep it up. That’s worth money.

    Alltech, a global animal feed additive company, understands. The Kentucky-based company, which has its Canadian headquarters in Guelph, is bringing all the niches together in a community-like way, creating a rural development model – a “Nicheville”, if you will – that it believes could be as valid and productive in Ontario as it is in the bluegrass state.

    There, the company received $8 million from the state’s economic development finance authority last fall, to turn sod for a Nicheville prototype soon, in Springfield. And it expects another whack of money from other public sources shortly, most notably the Kentucky department of energy, and ultimately has its eye on constructing 10 or more Nichevilles at rural locales throughout the state.

    The premise and genius of the Alltech model is the integration between feed, food and fuel production. Most of the world considers these elements at odds, like one is competing against the other. And indeed, this mentality has driven up the price of feed substantially, left people wondering if we will have enough food to eat, and sparked heated debates about farmers’ role in society: Is it to feed animals, fuel vehicles, or provide food for humans?

    Those are huge questions. But the Alltech model takes a different approach. Through the use of science and technology, Alltech considers food, feed and fuel complementary.

    For example, the heart of a Nicheville is built around a biorefinery. That’s a facility that takes what some call waste, such as corn cobs, wheat bran, wood chips and other forms of cellulose, and converts them to ethanol and other value-added products.

    Then the niches start to fall in place. Ethanol is a bit of niche in itself, at least for now, but becomes more mainstream everyday that we inch closer to legislated standards for ethanol content in gasoline. Such legislation will help keep Nichevilles economically sustainable.

    But so will the ability to make something more from the byproducts generated from the ethanol process, namely the spent grains. Here, Alltech uses its understanding of science to mix the grains for dairy and beef cattle feed. And it’s using its marketing smarts to promote and brand the state: The meat and milk produced by the animals that are part of this prototype will be processed onsite, creating even more jobs, and will be sold under a label called Kentucky Proud. That initiative addresses the local food, homegrown movement, as well as the state’s $250-million deficit in milk production. Can you imagine how this seems attractive to politicians and other decision makers?

    The Nicheville model includes additional features such as an algae production facility, aquaculture and hydroponics, all of which will generate additional rural income and jobs.

    Dr. Pearse Lyons, the passionate, energetic founder and president of Alltech, outlined his vision for the rural community biorefinery earlier this week before a gathering of farmers, scientists, students and the media on the company’s annual North America Lecture tour, which included a stop in Guelph on Tuesday.

    In his address, Lyons wondered aloud if the model would fit Ontario, particularly given his contention that the technology-based project presents an ideal opportunity to forge relationships with regional universities such as those at Guelph and Waterloo, and excite students about science. There’s no question the Nicheville concept will make him money, but as the sole owner of a $400-million a year company, money’s not his only motivator anymore. “It’s about the buzz,” he says. “This is exciting. There’s nothing like it, and there’s such an opportunity.”

    Most jurisdictions will take a wait-and-see approach towards rural community biorefineries until they feel more confident ethanol is here to stay, and that byproducts such as the spent grains are considered safe and reliable by farmers and the agri-food sector.

    But given what Lyons’s company has done for diversifying Kentucky’s economy, it’s worth at least listening to the Nicheville plan.