$60 billion market awaits U.S. farmers
Walk out of the baking summer heat of a corn field, cross a dusty turn row and slip beneath a 60' high canopy to feel the temperature drop a sharp 10° as dense foliage cloaks a surreal microclimate. Spaced 6' apart, 6"- to 8"-wide towering trunks are the fingers of a living plant organism, pulling in carbon dioxide and pouring out oxygen. Far removed from Asia, bamboo is growing on farmland in the black dirt of west Alabama.
Opportunities are aligning for bamboo production in the U.S. and even a small slice of the global market could bring windfall profits to American agriculture. The U.S. is a second-class participant in the $60 billion international bamboo industry as an importer and consumer, but it hasn’t yet entered the production side of growing and manufacturing. However, the sideline status is rapidly changing.
Bamboo, often tagged “green gold,” can be used for everything from biocomposites to elegant furniture. As a regenerating perennial grass resistant to extreme weather, it is the strongest growing woody plant on Earth.
Resource Fiber, a company at the vanguard of U.S. bamboo, is preparing to contract with U.S. growers and manufacture bamboo railroad ties, joists and truck decking as well as selling its fiber to industrial companies looking for an alternative to timber and petroleum-based resources. Resource Fiber operates the largest commercial bamboo nursery in the U.S. near Eutaw, in west-central Alabama, and is building a manufacturing plant close by.
“Bamboo will have a huge impact in U.S. agriculture and could reach several hundred thousand acres and perhaps more,” says David Knight, co-founder and CEO of Resource Fiber. “We’re talking about a billion-dollar U.S. industry.”
Globally, the U.S. is the top importer of bamboo products, demonstrating the massive demand in waiting. The market is established and the infrastructure is in place. Bamboo is an extraordinarily stable fiber with a variety of applications into hard goods, incorporation into composites, textiles and paper pulp. Akin to old growth wood fiber, bamboo can slip into a multiplicity of existing supply chains. “American manufacturing companies want bamboo sourced here and that’s what’s going to happen,” Knight says.
Roger Lewis owns Lewis Bamboo, Inc., in Oakman, Ala., and manages the Resource Fiber nursery program. There are more than 1,400 bamboo species, but Lewis says two are an ideal fit for U.S. farmland: moso, the premier variety for high value wood products, and rubromarginata (rubro), a biomass bamboo grown for biochar, biocomposites and other products. Moso is exclusive to the Southeast and USDA planting zones 7 and 8, and rubro is less finicky, with a growing window in planting zones 6 to 10.
Bamboo is a combination of tree farm and row crop, Lewis explains. After planting, establishment time is six years for the rubro and 10 years for the moso. Once established, producers cull 25% to 33% of a standing crop each year, a harvest that stretches 50 years or more without replanting.
Moso is planted as a 4' to 6' culm and 10" root mass at 109 plants per acre. Rubro is planted as a small propagule at 222 per acre. “Bamboo benefits from assistance in the first three years to make sure it gets enough water and nitrogen, but it’s a very self-sufficient species,” Lewis says.
During establishment and as bamboo grows taller, Lewis introduces companion and cover crops. At harvest, he reintroduces companion crops to the mix to prevent a monoculture. Culms (bamboo trunks) are cut at ground level and the stumps deteriorate, but the rhizome beneath is capable of producing hundreds of more culms.
“Bamboo is a colony plant,” he says. “You see about 50% of it and you’re walking on the other 50%. It’s a strange, peaceful feeling inside a canopy.”
Bamboo spreads underground and care must be maintained to keep a grove from walking, but Lewis says roots are relatively easy to control with a subsoiler around a 20' buffer area twice each year. The subsoiler severs the root system and doesn’t leave enough energy for residual growth. “Bamboo is expansive, but not invasive,” he notes. “It’s easy and inexpensive to control and won’t jump all over the farm.”
In 2021, Resource Fiber will begin selling bamboo plants to producers. The Eutaw nursery is expected to produce 17 million plants during the next 20 years, enough plants for 100,000 acres of farmland. “The epicenter is Alabama, but we want to build facilities elsewhere and ideally contract with producers within a 25-mile radius,” Knight explains.
Annie Dee raises cattle, corn and soybeans on 10,000 acres in Aliceville, Ala., and is ready to plant bamboo in 2021, particularly on less productive ground as a sustainable farming venture. “Grow and gain. Bamboo gives me a chance as a farmer to grow something of high value and funnel it into a waiting market,” she says. “I’ve got fields that don’t get fully utilized and that’s where I can plant bamboo.”
“The bamboo industry is growing fast,” Dee adds. “I’m not going to pass up opportunity just because a crop is different from the norm.”