The Federal government, almost exclusively USDA, has played several roles in the decade of commercialization of kenaf. The decade was marked early on by changes in Federal law and policy encouraging closer cooperative R&D projects with private industry. This in turn encouraged collaboration on shorter term, targeted projects. Then came a return to more traditional, longer term agricultural research programs in breeding, genetics, and agronomy. Passage of the 1990 Farm Bill opened the potential for direct commercialization assistance from USDA just as the first kenaf businesses were beginning operations. It was also during this mid-decade period that kenaf became sufficiently well known and gained enough R&D background for other USDA funding programs to acknowledge and favorably rate proposals for support.
At the end of the decade of commercialization, there are four businesses, hopefully profitable businesses, leading the way to what could eventually become a new fiber industry in the United States. Natural Fibers of Louisiana (Jeanerette, Louisiana), Mississippi Delta Fiber Cooperative (Charleston, Mississippi), and Kenaf International (McAllen, Texas) run mechanical fiber separation mills and maintain a variety of business relations with other fiber product manufacturing firms. KP Products (Albuquerque, New Mexico) manages the manufacture and marketing of printing and writing grade paper made from kenaf bast fiber.
Phases I and II took place from 1986 to 1988. In Phase I, USDA and Kenaf International executed a full commercial scale newsprint demonstration with several partners. Kenaf was grown in Texas by Kenaf International and Rio Farms, and pulped in Ohio by C-E Sprout Bauer. Newsprint was manufactured by Canadian Pacific Forest Products in Quebec, Canada, and pressroom runs done in July 1987 by The Bakersfield Californian in California. Each component of Phase I was declared successful by industry.
Phase II aimed to remove another barrier to commercialization of kenaf. Harvest, handling and storage of kenaf had been accommodated by borrowing equipment from forage, cotton and sugar cane operations. A harvest system dedicated to kenaf was needed and the Kenaf Demonstration Project engaged the services of Willett and Associates, the eventual founder of Natural Fibers of Louisiana. Starting from seed and row spacing in the farm field and ending with 11-14 inch kenaf billets delivered to the fiber yard of a paper mill, a custom system was designed, built and successfully tested by the fall of 1988.
With newsprint shown to be a proven commodity and a custom harvest system in place, the Kenaf Demonstration Project entered Phase III, covering the years from 1988 to 1990. This period was characterized by a Kenaf Demonstration Project team decision to dissolve itself and move into more traditional operations. For USDA this meant opening breeding, genetics and agronomy programs at Agricultural Research Service stations in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. For the private partners, it meant pursuing plans to finance and build a newsprint mill in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
As the planning for a 90 ton-per-day newsprint mill progressed in the years from 1990 to 1993, the paper industry entered a cyclic down turn characterized by over capacity to produce many paper grades and resulting lowering prices. Financing $40 million for a small newsprint mill to use a new nonwood fiber feedstock became untenable. This precipitated a shift by private entrepreneurs and USDA to search for less capital intensive, smaller scale markets for kenaf's bast and core fibers. Like newsprint, other kenaf fiber products had to be developed and readied for demand-driven market needs. Unlike newsprint, efficient and clean mechanical separation of the two fiber fractions was needed.
The aforementioned three separation mills began operations in 1990-1991. The Louisiana mill opened first and specialized in oil/chemical adsorbents and animal bedding made from core. Mississippi opened with a fiber supply push and eventually gained markets in adsorbents and horticultural mixes from core. The Texas operation was/is foremost in newsprint but specialized in composites from bast and was first to bring horticultural mixes to the market. A fourth mill operated for a two years in California, but closed down and moved its instant-lawn mat product made from bast to the Mississippi mill.
In 1993, KP Products began to have kenaf printing and writing grade paper manufactured from bast fiber by Ecusta Paper Company in North Carolina. Bast fiber is purchased from the mechanical separation mills. The paper, marketed as tree-free, chlorine-free, and acid-free, appeals to environmental organizations. Due to small volume and batch pulping, the kenaf paper is more expensive than bright-white, traditional bond paper made from wood.
Kenaf made its way into USDA competitive research and commercialization assistance programs in 1993 to 1995, the latter part of the decade of commercialization. The National Research Initiative, Small Business Innovation Research, and Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization programs added to the continuing research program conducted by the Agricultural Research Service.
Total support for kenaf research by the Agricultural Research Service in 1995 was $1.6 million for programs at four locations and headquarters. The Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, conducts research into non-woven technologies to minimize damage to fibers during mat formation. The Lane, Oklahoma, field station concentrates on agronomy in the northern reaches of the Cotton Belt.
The Weslaco, Texas, field station leads the breeding/genetics program and the uniform variety trials, as well as agronomy studies. Support is passed through the Agricultural Research Service to Mississippi State University for a program which currently concentrates on kenaf fiber processing and product applications. The headquarters office in Beltsville, Maryland, allocates some funding to a variety of projects, mainly in kenaf fiber quality assurance and product development.
In 1994 and 1995, under the topic area Industrial Applications, SBIR sponsored two Phase I, proof-of-concept, studies for kenaf fiber products: a structural composite and an erosion control mulch mat. Over $100,000 of the $626,000 total for the Industrial Applications topic was provided to two small firms in Colorado and Wisconsin. Note that Phase II SBIR grants allow the small business to take the proof-of-concept to the point of commercial start-up.
Phase III calls for the small business to commercialize the product with other sources of funding and support.
In 1993-1994, AARC funded four projects. Kenaf International received $100,000 for newsprint and for pulp for spaceboard. Gridcore Systems International's grant of $50,000 was for kenaf bast mixed with waste paper to manufacture spaceboard. Dry-formed mats impregnated with fertilizer and seed for instant lawns won $800,000 for Agro-Fibers. KP Products was awarded $100,000 to expand the market for printing and writing grade paper made form kenaf bast fiber.