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Taylor, C.S. 1993. Kenaf: An emerging new crop industry. p. 402-407. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

Kenaf: an Emerging New Crop Industry

Charles S. Taylor


  1. THE KENAF HALL OF FAME
    1. Before 1977
    2. After 1977
  2. KENAF COMMERCIALIZATION ACTIVITIES
  3. REFERENCES

This report describes an on-going adventure with a new crop called kenaf, Hibiscus cannabinus L, a new annual fiber crop with a wide range of exciting product applications. This report will identify the numerous individuals and institutions that have been instrumental in bringing kenaf up to and across the threshold of commercialization. A brief review of the major events that have brought kenaf to this juncture will also be made. Finally, the emergence of commercial scale activities by both Kenaf International and Natural Fibers of Louisiana, Inc. will be discussed.

THE KENAF HALL OF FAME

Kenaf is now crossing the commercial threshold, and it is no longer necessary to recite the physical and chemical attributes that make kenaf an interesting source of natural fibers for a wide range of industrial applications. The attributes of kenaf have been extensively reviewed by Dempsey (1975). While a solid reservoir of technical information is critical to the successful introduction of a new crop industry such as kenaf, the best way to view such information is as a prerequisite. In other words, before initiating new crop development activities, research activities should have already determined the basic set of information necessary for decision makers to consider. Then, once the development of the new crop industry warrants a serious consideration of commercial potentials and options, much of the key information on product/process developments and market strategies will no longer be freely circulated in the public sector. So it is now with kenaf.

This will cause some concern in the future as it will become increasingly more difficult for those of us in the private sector to find much that can be discussed in public regarding kenaf. One aspect that remains is the human factor, the men and women and institutions that have searched for potential and nurtured it into being. Citing a list of contributors to the development and commercialization of a new crop industry like kenaf is risky business, as some will be overlooked and under recognized. Regardless, new crop developers should be well known for their risk-taking propensity.

Before 1977

The watershed event for kenaf in the United States was the successful conclusion of the USDA Search for New Pulp Fibers that culminated in the pressroom of the Peoria Journal Star on August 8, 1977. This work effort was initiated on a limited scale in the 1940s when government agencies became concerned about the need to replace imported jute supplies from the Far East due to market disruptions caused by the Japanese. Some of this early work took place in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas under the supervision of W.R. Cowley of Texas A&M University.

The literature is fairly complete on those who contributed to the exploratory research activities of the 1940s and 1950s and the more applied research efforts that began in the late 1950s and continued through 1977. Dempsey's 1975 classic, Fiber Crops, offers a comprehensive narrative of the work that went on prior to the printing of the Peoria Journal Star on kenaf newsprint. Most of the key individuals were USDA staff members at both the National Program level and at the regional research centers, particularly the laboratory at Peoria, Illinois. Leadership was provided by Tom Clark and later by Marvin Bagby. Many others on the USDA utilization research team contributed significantly to this effort. Credit should be given here to the chemurgic movement, which gave rise to interest in industrial applications of agricultural based materials such as kenaf.

Agronomic studies were also conducted by both the USDA and land grant university personnel. During the 1960s and 1970s, work coordinated by USDA's George White involved yield trials ranging from the Pacific Northwest to Texas and Florida (White et al. 1971). Much of this work was based on research that had taken place in the Caribbean (primarily Cuba before Castro) and Central America. In addition to the late Jack Dempsey, individuals like Joseph Atchison and Edwin Sholton served as consultants on the new fiber crop's potential for the world's pulp and paper industry. These two were responsible for some of the early feasibility work that eventually led to the world's first kenaf pulp mill in Khon Kaen, Thailand. They, along with USDA personnel, were instrumental in getting the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI) to form a Non-Wood Pulp Fiber Committee. This committee then became the principal source of information about kenaf as a potential fiber source for the pulp and paper industry.

On the private side, most of the work focussed on harvesting and processing kenaf bast fibers for the twine and burlap industries. Various small companies were formed in Florida, Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala to compete with jute/kenaf fibers from the Far East. A company called North American Kenaf International, Inc. developed seed supplies and field decortication equipment in the early 1960s. However, by the early 1980s only a small bag operation in Guatemala called Productos de Kenaf, S.A. was still operating. These initial efforts caused the technology to be field tested in the western hemisphere and kenaf became well exposed to the United States agricultural research community. As documented in a TAPPI report (Atchison and Collins 1976), numerous pulp and paper companies around the world conducted their own investigations into kenaf during this time period.

Although key questions remained regarding the dependability of an industrial raw material supply based on an annual crop (primarily logistics, economics of scale, and need to develop and structure a harvesting--handling--storage--delivery system), kenaf benefitted greatly from the two-pronged approach used by USDA during the last decade of their early work on kenaf, i.e., the focus on both agronomic and industrial aspects. Of special note here is the remarkable breeding accomplishments of the USDA Kenaf Breeders led by F. Douglas Wilson, Charles Adamson, and Austin Campbell. Their work resulted in the release of the two Everglades varieties as well as several other promising lines.

After 1977

The 1977 printing of the Peoria Journal Star ironically represented the end of the USDA/land grant university work on kenaf. The basic technical feasibility of using kenaf in the manufacture of newsprint had been demonstrated, and national program priorities shifted, primarily to focus on "energy" crops. Except for the extra-curricular efforts of key individuals such as Bagby, Adamson, and the late Eli Whiteley (Texas A&M University), the USDA kenaf program would be dormant until late 1985.

However, to USDA's credit, sufficient work of significant quality had been done to encourage a more serious private sector look at kenaf by the North American Pulp and Paper Industry. Most businessmen appreciate that it is important to be prepared when "opportunity knocks." Whereas low wood and paper prices in the 1960-75 period had discouraged spending much time and funds, looking for alternatives, the economy had changed somewhat by the late 1970s. Donald N. Soldwedel, the publisher of the Yuma Daily Sun in Arizona, convinced his colleagues in the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) to support a series of studies, which followed up on the USDA work.

Industry support of the ANPA initiative came from the Newsprint Division of the International Paper Company, where Charles A. Thompson succeeded in getting CIP's Research Lab to refine the Thermo-mechanical pulping process (TMP) defined in the earlier USDA work. The late Walt Kammann of Yuma, Arizona grew about 100 acres (40 ha) of kenaf in 1978 and some of this fiber was used by International Paper (IP) in cooperation with what is now Andritz Sprout-Bauer, Inc. to conduct the first commercial machine trial with kenaf-based newsprint. The pulp was made at the Bauer pilot plant in Springfield, Ohio and made into newsprint at IP's mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Six newspapers tested the kenaf newsprint with encouraging results. In 1981 a follow up trial took place at the IP mill in Mobile, Alabama. This time, eight newspapers tested the product successfully.

Meanwhile, two unrelated events were taking place. In Thailand, a financial consortium made the decision to proceed with the Phoenix Pulp & Paper Company's 200 ton/day kraft pulp mill that was initially based on whole-stalk kenaf. The mill initiated operations in late 1981, under the technical leadership of P.K. Paul. Back in the United States, Melvin G. Blase and Fred L. Mann committed the University of Missouri to a National Science Foundation-supported research effort looking for more efficient approaches to the introduction of new crops for American farmers. In 1979, this author became committed to the study of kenaf as a possible model for testing a "systems" approach for new crop introductions.

Sometimes the methodology of a dissertation takes on more lasting significance than the research itself. To gather the information necessary to assess the status of the embryonic kenaf system, the Soil and Land Use Technology, Inc./University of Missouri team adapted the Delphi Technique (Taylor and Whiteley 1981). This enabled them to rather quickly develop direct contacts with everyone from plant breeders to newsprint experts. The research effort after several months became essentially self-fulfilling as key members of the research team were contracted by the ANPA to study the general feasibility of using kenaf as a fiber source for the manufacture of newsprint in the United States. The study was the focus of the First International Kenaf Conference held 29 April 1982 in San Francisco, where more than 100 participants reviewed its conclusions (Taylor et al. 1982).

While the above study was still in progress, the research team was approached by The Bakersfield Californian (newspaper) and Agri-Future, Inc. (an agri-management company also from Bakersfield). The discussions resulted in the formation of Kenaf International, which next month will celebrate its first decade. This new kenaf champion immediately proceeded to attack some of the gaps remaining in the kenaf to newsprint system.

The first action preceded the formation of the joint venture company by a few months as the partners-to-be agreed that it was urgent to commence increasing the available kenaf seed supply. Contact was made with Eli Whiteley who had participated in the earlier studies and he, after consulting with his former professor, W.R. Cowley, recommended that Kenaf International contract with Andrew W. Scott, Jr. at the private research farm known as Rio Farms, Inc. in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Thus, began a relationship that has survived 10 long years and enabled Kenaf International to (1) develop over the next nine years an American based commercial seed inventory capable of meeting the needs of large scale kenaf projects and (2) eventually recognize that the lower Rio Grande Valley offered an ideal location for industries based on kenaf.

During the next four years, Kenaf International was disappointed when political forces caused International Paper to divest its newsprint division and interrupt its interest in developing kenaf. Other companies seemed only casually interested in kenaf, asking questions that called for extensive growing experience. Little funding could be found in the United States for the work required, and Kenaf International spent time in Thailand, Zimbabwe, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Italy, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico, developing the field based technologies necessary to support a kenaf-based pulp and paper project.

After conducting a third feasibility study in the Caribbean only to listen to the bankers complain about the small country's fiscal irresponsibility, Kenaf International was invited home in late 1985 to meet with then Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, John Norton, and discuss how the USDA could re-establish its work with kenaf. After a series of meetings and visits to American newsprint mills, Kenaf International and the USDA signed, in early 1986, a Cooperative Agreement that soon led to the Kenaf Demonstration Project, which has been well chronicled by Daniel E. Kugler (1988). Incidentally, these decisions also rescued young Daniel from the den of the Economic Research Service and gave us a tireless spokesperson for industrial crops who understands that cooperation between public agencies and private companies is a two-way street. Kenaf also recaptured some of Marvin Bagby's time. A couple years later, Frank X. Werber of the Agricultural Research Service added invaluable insight and experience to product development efforts with kenaf.

Our five years of seed production with Rio Farms led us to look at that area as a potential site for a kenaf based project. Rio Farms' Andy Scott suggested that we introduce ourselves to their Congressman Kika de la Garza who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. He and his excellent staff have been a source of constant support and encouragement. The USDA was particularly responsive in adding the services of Charles G. Cook to their experiment station in Weslaco, Texas.

The Kenaf Demonstration Project over the next five years proved to be an excellent example as to how a system-wide group of companies, agencies, and individuals could cooperate to develop and demonstrate the technologies necessary to launch a new crop industry. Not only did we succeed in demonstrating our ability to produce high quality newsprint from kenaf, covering each step from field to pressroom runs, but the initial work on separating kenaf fibers for a variety of other products was also initiated. Simply put, we grew kenaf in Texas, pulped it in Ohio, made it into newsprint in Quebec, and printed on it in California, Texas, and Florida. This made for some well traveled fiber. Special acknowledgements are due Andritz Sprout Bauer, Canadian Pacific Forest Products Limited, the Beloit Corporation, and Daniel Engineering. Key leadership was provided by Bauer's Joseph A. Kurdin and William Bohn.

It is sometimes too easy to focus on the results as being the major accomplishments. To be sure, Kenaf International and the USDA as well as all of the other parties involved are justifiably proud of the kenaf newsprint that was made in July 1987. We're equally pleased with the auto parts and other natural fiber products that were made earlier this year. However, the principal successes were in the field. During the past four years, 12 farmers grew approximately 300 acres (125 ha) of kenaf. Surviving both hurricanes and drought, average harvestable yields were in the 6 to 8 dry tons/acre (13 to 17.5 t/ha) range. The leadership of Rio Farms was invaluable during this period.

When it came to harvesting the kenaf, we confronted a long learning curve. The literature suggested that we could use forage choppers and so we did. The program would have ended there in a field near Monte Alto, Texas had we not captured the interest (and sympathy) of Harold A. Willett, who had retired from several careers in the sugar industry and was looking for new challenges. Upon review, he reminded the team that we needed a harvesting system not harvesting equipment. We agreed and H. Willett & Associates, Inc. began work on developing the system and equipment necessary to harvest the 1988 crop. That August found key team members in the hospital and Hurricane Gilberto visited in September. In October, we ran our field tests. The unanimous opinion of the observers was that we had a proven harvesting system for kenaf. Since 1988, Kenaf International and Natural Fibers of Louisiana have harvested approximately 1,000 acres (400 ha) of kenaf in Texas and Louisiana.

As far as the newsprint project was concerned, the technology was ready. It now became the responsibility of engineers, bankers, and corporate attorneys. The Kenaf Paper Company was formed in 1989 and has essentially completed its project development phase. Meanwhile the focus of the USDA/Kenaf International cooperation shifted to an investigation of the possibility of achieving an acceptable mechanical separation of the kenaf bast and core fibers.

The kenaf stalk contains two distinct fibers, i.e., long, jute-like bast fibers in its bark and the short, balsawood-like core fibers. The bast fibers have been used traditionally in the manufacture and trade of cordage products such as burlap cloth, twine, and ropes. General Felt Industries, a major importer of jute/kenaf fibers, had followed the kenaf work since the late 1970s, and Kenaf International was aware of their interest and requirements. The pulp trials at Andritz Sprout Bauer required milling the whole-stalk fibers in order to get the material into the pulping system. The milling itself caused some natural separation and caused us to consider that it might be possible to claim specialized markets for natural fibers for United States farmers.

Follow up work over the next two years, led to a decision by the USDA and Kenaf International, that a pilot plant separation trial was warranted. Believing that it was logical to go to the cotton gin industry for the necessary technology, the Lummus Development Corporation was asked to conduct some lab tests with kenaf. The initial results were quite promising and plans were made to proceed with a pilot plant trial in the Rio Grande Valley. This approach proved to be too expensive in terms of capital and operating requirements, but more importantly it failed to produce a saleable product. We also learned the importance of fire prevention as we lost about 200 tons of stalks in less than 15 minutes one hot May afternoon in 1989.

The pilot trial's disappointing results led Kenaf International to explore other equipment options, and lab scale trials with European machinery kept hope alive that our objectives were possible, however, feasibility was a more elusive issue. Small scale and high horsepower were the major concerns. Meanwhile the worldwide search for processing equipment was helping us to identify a wider range of potential applications and markets for natural fiber products.

Chief among the latter was a call from Hunter Brooks who at that time headed up a task force at Cadillac Motor Car Company. He wanted some kenaf to use in the manufacture of car interior parts like headliners. This particular technology holds the potential of opening up very wide horizons for a natural fiber substitute for fiberglass in certain applications. This work has continued with Kirk Cunningham of the PresGlas Corporation. Similar possibilities began to develop for the core material, primarily as a poultry litter medium thanks to initial work by George Malone in Delaware with additional trials by Dale Hyatt at Texas A&M University. These and other opportunities were investigated and evaluated. However, without an effective and cost efficient process, such markets could not be accessed.

The scene shifts to Cajun Country in South Louisiana where Harold Willett has his headquarters. He and his crew had been directly involved in the 1989 separation trial and understood the limitations of the Lummus approach. Willett began tinkering with a much simpler process and has applied for a patent after running a pilot plant operation since January 1991. Kenaf has been grown in Louisiana since 1988 to assist in the testing of the harvesting equipment. Charles Lanie and other local farmers in New Iberia parish became interested in kenaf as a crop for their seed fallow cane acreage. They joined with Willett to form Natural Fibers of Louisiana, Inc. on August 28, 1990 to finance the further work necessary to establish a commercial fiber separation business.

Since the formation of Kenaf International, we have cooperated closely with others working on kenaf around the globe, particularly in Thailand with P.K. Paul of Phoenix Pulp and Paper Company and in Australia with I.M. Wood of CSIRO. These contacts have helped us assess the viability of various technologies that have been advanced from those areas and stay abreast of new developments. Kenaf International maintains close contacts with a growing number of American and overseas entities, particularly within the pulp and paper industry's research community. This helps us to stay abreast of new developments around the world. In cooperation with the USDA and local governments, Kenaf International introduced kenaf to Oklahoma in 1986 where it is presently being studied as a possible niche forage crop by Bill Phillips at USDA/ARS in El Reno, Oklahoma and Mike Dicks of Oklahoma State University.

Kenaf International was also the first to explore kenaf's potential in other states like Delaware, Mississippi, and California. While kenaf can be considered a prospective crop in those areas under certain conditions and some efforts are purportedly underway in each of those states, Kenaf International's initial doubts have not been adequately overcome.

KENAF COMMERCIALIZATION ACTIVITIES

Although Kenaf International initiated its seed increase operations in 1981, only in 1990 did its management decide that it was appropriate to commence commercial seed sales. Sales in 1991 are expected to show an increase over 1990 and projections call for steady but not spectacular growth in seed sales through the next few years or until a commercial project begins using kenaf on a significant scale. Sales to date are primarily domestic, but a significant portion is entering the international market. Kenaf International is dedicated to maintaining a commercial scale inventory of viable seed for the principal kenaf cultivars in a manner that will keep the cost of seed reasonable for farmers.

Reference has already been made to the successful efforts of Natural Fibers of Louisiana, Inc. to start up the first commercial kenaf fiber separation facility in the United States. Their pilot operation has enabled them to began supplying various users with small volumes for test marketing for the past 10 months, and the new commercial facility is scheduled to initiate operations in December 1991 with the harvest of approximately 650 acres (265 ha) of kenaf in South Louisiana. Their plans call for planting about 1,500 acres (612 ha) in 1992. It should be emphasized that these efforts in Louisiana, as well as those in Texas, have been solely supported by the private sector without any direct assistance from public institutions. Their capital costs are slightly under $1 million.

Similarly, Kenaf International is finalizing plans to proceed with its own fibers project in South Texas. The first phase will be initiated with the planting of approximately 200 acres (82 ha) in February 1992 with expansion scheduled later next fall. Local markets have been identified and most of the equipment is already in place. Once the expansion planned for late 1992 is complete and full capacity is attained (projected for 1995), the annual acreage requirements are projected to be 5,000 acres (2,040 ha) with a total capital investment will be about $2 million for harvesting and processing equipment, site, engineering, permits, and initial working capital.

Kenaf International's primary goal since its inception has been to develop kenaf as a commercially viable fiber for the pulp and paper industry. While good progress has been made, we have not yet realized this objective. Plans to build and operate a 85 t/day newsprint mill based on a combination of kenaf and recycled fibers in the Rio Grande Valley are on hold pending a restructuring of financing arrangements. About $4 million of the anticipated $50 million capital requirements has already been invested in acquiring site, permits, and key equipment as well as basic engineering. Farmers and engineers are ready to roll should the project be restructured and attain sufficient financing.

The proposed "K-Chico" Project's combination of annually renewable and recycled fibers has some unique economic and environmental implications. A "tree-free" paper that requires relatively minimal chemical inputs in either field or mill operations reduces both costs and environmental concerns. Energy consumption is 15 to 25% lower for kenaf than what is required to pulp southern pine using the TMP process and the treated wastewater can be used to irrigate nearby fiber crops. The USDA's Forest Products Lab and the ANPA deserve much of the credit for testing the concept of combining the two fibers. The future implications could become quite important as the use of kenaf and old newspapers in relatively tiny but profitable mill operations could eventually have a dramatic impact on the world's pulp and paper industry, which is what we've believed all along.

REFERENCES


Last update April 23, 1997 aw