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Kenaf Promoters High on Fiber Crop

25 January 2002

A materials company is encouraging southern farmers to grow kenaf, a fast-growing fibrous plant.

Integrated Composite Technologies needs up to 11,000 acres of kenaf within two years as part of its plan to make boards and preshaped molding from recycled plastics and cellulose fibers from sawdust, rice hulls or the kenaf plants.

“This is the first step in changing a whole materials paradigm that has built up over the past 200 years,” ICT president Ron Rutherford said. Africans grew kenaf as early as 6000 B.C., and within the last century it has been grown in India, Asia, Africa, the Near East and Latin America. U.S. farmers devoted about 12,000 acres to kenaf last year, mostly in Texas, Mississippi and Georgia.

Kenaf comes in two varieties: One with leaves that resemble marijuana, the other with heart-shaped leaves similar to the hibiscus plant, a kenaf cousin. Kenaf stalks, which reach heights of 12 to 14 feet, have two types of fiber. The long, stringy outer fiber can be twisted into cords and ropes. The shorter inner fibers can be used to make paper, or blended with plastic to make molded or extruded products.

Agricultural officials say some automakers have switched from fiberglass to molded door panels made with kenaf, which is stronger, lighter and less likely to shatter or warp in extreme temperatures.

Last October, ICT moved into a former recreational-vehicle plant in Montezuma, an economically depressed town about 100 miles south of Atlanta. The company has a $1.5 million, computer-controlled machine that blends plastic and fibers at high temperatures and squeezes the paste out like Play-Doh. Rutherford said the plant can support 10 machines, and more have been ordered.

Baldwin's work has demonstrated that kenaf can be grown in the Southern Cotton Belt, but farmers have been reluctant because of limited markets. They also would need equipment to separate kenaf's fibers. Andy Moye, a board member of the Carolina Kenaf Farmers' Foundation in Snow Hill, N.C., said the crop has attracted the interest of some tobacco farmers whose incomes have been slashed by mandatory production cuts.

``We're feeling our way into it,'' said Moye. ``It's a case of trying to identify some places it can go and giving customers what they want. It grows well here and it appears to have a lot of versatility.''