Question of the Week
Answer: Thank you for requesting from ATTRA current information on kenaf production and marketing. This letter updates the information found on our Web site in the 2003 publication Kenaf Production.
Although USDA-funded research began during WWII, acceptance of kenaf by U.S. industry has been very slow. In the 1950’s USDA researchers “identified kenaf as the most promising non-wood fiber for pulp and paper making.”(1) Optimism about kenaf replacing wood pulp for newsprint seems to have peaked about 1993. Now it is far more likely to find uses in other products—and likely to be grown outside the U.S.
Links to USDA agency archives listed below provide a glimpse into the history of kenaf. I am also listing current contacts for past and on-going research into this crop. Many of the organizations formerly promoting kenaf no longer have Web sites.
In the U.S. demand for newsprint is falling, as consolidation of the publishing industry continues and more and more dailies go on-line. Most newsprint producers seem content to continue to pulp their vast holdings of perennial forest land, rather than contracting with large numbers of individual farmers growing an annual crop. Universities currently (or recently) researching kenaf include North Carolina State, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State University. Their Web sites may contain research reports. In the interest of preserving forest land, there has been strong and consistent backing by environmental groups for federally funded research and mandated use of kenaf for newsprint and other paper products.
Economics of Kenaf
Kenaf has been researched for at least 50 years as a possible substitute for wood pulp in papermaking, and as a possible substitute crop for cotton farmers. A relative of okra, it is adapted to areas with a long growing season and is raised in many parts of the tropics as a household fiber crop. Articles published in the mid-to-early 1990s optimistically predicted that kenaf would soon become a major crop in the South. Prototype machinery was devised for harvesting and processing this crop and manufacturing a variety of products from both the long bast fiber and the short-fibered core.
However, kenaf has not replaced wood pulp in papermaking and did not replace cotton. It is not a low-cost substitute for any bulk material. Independent grower networks did not work out because the economic returns are in selling finished products, not the raw material. Processing and marketing take a huge investment. Paper mills, for instance, would have to be completely retooled to accept kenaf as a feedstock.
Instead, kenaf has developed as a specialty crop. Kenaf Industries of South Texas, a vertically integrated company, ships a kenaf-derived raw material to Europe for use as a plastic base in automobile manufacturing, and it sells a lumber substitute, K-Wood, locally as a decking material. The company is developing K-fencing.
Vision Paper of Milan, TX, promotes its kenaf office paper (10% kenaf and 90% recycled stock) and announced in 2005 that it is building a treeless paper mill in Tennessee, the first of its kind in the world. Vision Paper also offers kenaf seed through its Web site, www.visionpaper.com. However, the Web site has apparently not been updated since 2005.
Much of the market for kenaf is in selling to environmentally conscious U.S. customers willing to pay a premium for treeless products. Many countries where labor is less costly than the U.S. produce kenaf and kenaf products. Any U.S. production would be on a contract basis—or totally vertically integrated.
A search of Amazon.com brought up 3,196 titles on papermaking. Titles include:
Hiebert, Helen. 2000. The Papermaker’s Companion. $6.92
Maurer-Mathison, Diane K. 2002. The Art of Making Paste Papers.
Plowman, John. 2001. Papermaking Techniques Book: Over 50
Techniques for Making and Embellishing Handmade Paper. Paperback.
Riemer-Epp, Heidi, and Mary Riemer. 2002. The Encyclopedia of Paper
Making and Book Binding. Hardcover. $9.90
Saddington, Marianne. 1992. Making Your Own Paper. Paperback.
Small-scale papermaking (Technical Memorandum No. 8) by ILO and World Employment Programme. 1984. paperback. $20.25
Other titles deal with aspects of the paper industry and industrial-scale production.
1) USDA/ERS. 1997. Kenaf production and products continue to expand. Industrial Uses/IUS-7. p. 23.
Susan Combs (ed.). 2000. Kenaf: A crop in search of a market. Fiscal Notes. June. Combs is the Texas Controller of Public Accounts.
Links for agency documents:
Geisler, Malinda. 2007. Kenaf. AgMrc (Iowa State University). 1 p.
University of Kentucky Extension. 2005. Kenaf. 1 p.
USDA/ARS. 2004. News & events: New uses for kenaf. 2 p.
USDA/ERS. 1993. Kenaf and flax find niche markets. Industrial Uses/IUS-2. December. p. 19–21.
USDA/ERS. 1997. Kenaf production and products continue to expand. Industrial Uses/IUS-7. p. 23–25.
Kenaf International, McAllen, TX. Processes South Texas kenaf locally to separate bast from core fibers.
Kenaf Paper Manufacturing (KPM), subsidiary of Canadian-based Kafus Capital Corp. Announced plans to use whole-stalk kenaf as its sole fiber source for a newsprint mill in Willacy County, TX.
First Farm Fibers with 750 acres under contract in Delaware collaborates with Curtis Paper Mill, Newark, DE, and with Crane Paper Co., Dalton, MA. First Farm Fibers is a consortium of farmers, investors, and U DE researchers.
Ankal, Inc., Atlanta, GA, has developed technology to separate bast and core fibers; mfg. core-based cat litter. Also working on pelletized fiber and feed.
Lumus Gin Co., Charleston, MS, plans to contract for production on over 1,000 acres of land in 2007.
Two companies advertising kenaf products on the Internet include:
Vision Paper (a division of KP Products) P.O. Box 20399 Albuquerque, NM 87154-0399 www.visionpaper.com
Kenaf Industries of South Texas L.P.
Route 2, #50 Kenaf Road
Raymondville, Texas 78580
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