DANBURY — Despite unusually wet weather that slowed harvesting, an experimental kenaf plot in Brazoria County is making the crop’s future in Southeast Texas look bright.
“You’re looking at a nice little profit,” said Don Tankersley of Alvin during May’s harvest on the 68-acre plot.
Tankersley is a partner in a small custom harvesting company formed in part to be involved in the fledgling Southeast Texas kenaf business. Harvest of the kenaf, which sells for between $50 and $55 a ton, began in the second week of May.
With between three and five tons an acre expected, the plot could produce $250 an acre income on total input costs between $125 and $150 an acre for this year. A Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher estimated six tons of kenaf were on each acre, but the final yield will depend on how well harvesting equipment works with fallen kenaf in the field.
The experimental harvest has already been sold, primarily for kitty litter and paper pulp. It is part of an effort to develop profitable alternative crops for rice farmers in Southeast Texas, said Dr. John Sij of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Sij, a professor of soil and crop sciences and a researcher at Beaumont’s research station, said, “All in all, we’ve got to be pleased with the project to date.
“We’d like to have a lot more acreage, but generally, people are reluctant to get involved because of the financial risk of a market that still has to develop.”
Showing the crop can be profitable is a key step to developing the kind of acreage that can make investors build processing plants and market kenaf products, Sij said.
The light, tough and highly absorbent inner core of the plant, which is similar to balsa wood, can be used for many kinds of products. Andrew Kaldor, president of Ankal Inc. of Atlanta, Ga., will provide the equipment for separating and processing the kenaf, marketing expertise and organization. A Brazoria County cotton gin that will be temporarily converted to a kenaf processing facility.
The stringy outer bark will be sold to international markets, primarily for paper pulp.
However, the plant can be used for myriad other products, including ropes, textiles, acoustical tiles, lightweight construction materials, animal bedding, and environmental cleanup or remediation materials, Sij said.
Kenaf production is particularly important because of its potential as an alternative product for rice farmers. The rice industry is struggling to overcome declining acreage and other problems, said John Campbell, coordinator of the Sam Houston Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc.
Partners in the effort began harvesting the 12-foot high stalks near Danbury later than first planned. The kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family, was planted last May and ideally would have been harvested sometime in late December or early January, Campbell said.
However, heavy rainfall and lack of a timely killing frost during the winter and early spring kept harvesting from occuring. Normally, a freeze kills the plants, which then go through a month-long natural curing and drying process in the field before being harvested.
Wet ground kept harvesting equipment out of the field, and high winds blew some of the dead kenaf stalks over when the soggy soil would not hold them up, Campbell said. That made gathering the kenaf with a specially equipped harvester difficult, because it is made to chop stalks down and feed them into a mulcher rather than scooping them up.
The project is possible only because of the cooperation of several parties, Sij said. Rice farmer Jacko Garrett of Danbury tried the crop and paid planting and cultivation costs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked in a $5,000 grant, which the non-profit Sam Houston Resource Conservation and Development District used to develop a feasible business plan for a regional kenaf industry. Campbell heads the district and is an employee of the USDA.
The Gene Barta Gin of Damon will be converted to a processing plant. Kenaf Fibers Inc. was formed to market the kenaf; Kaldor is chairman of the board and Carl Spiller of Alvin is chief executive officer.
Sij and other researchers at Beaumont, meanwhile, are working on ways to kill the kenaf earlier, which would establish a cash flow for farmers early in the winter. They’re looking at various chemical methods, but will also look at application of salt as a means of hastening plant death and curing.
Meanwhile, he and other promoters will keep trying to convince farmers to grow kenaf.
“So far, I think we’re probably on target considering we have never done this before,” he said. “At this stage we have a real steep learning curve, but I’m optimistic.”