With the effects of Hurricane Katrina still ravaging the Gulf Coast and the blow of the BP oil spill now to be dealt with, it’s high time that a sustainable and long-term path to recovery start for the US Delta region. And that path may well be paved with bamboo stalks.
Once a small niche market, there are now hundreds of bamboo products for people in the United States to choose from. They range from the expected products such as bamboo fencing to the surprising (and surprisingly soft) products of bamboo clothes. Bamboo fiber is becoming increasingly commonplace and now consumers have the option for everything from bamboo bath towels to loungewear to organic baby onesies.
With so much to choose from, it’s not surprising then that the United States is the largest consumer of bamboo products. And while the US loves their bamboo products, there is still no primary source for bamboo production in the United States. Combine that consumer want with a desperate need in the Gulf Coast states for a new kind of economic reconstruction and you have a win-win situation for farmers and shoppers alike.
Jackie Heinricher of Booshoot Gardens LLC saw this winning combination and started working with officials in the Mississippi Delta to bring together farmers, buyers, processors and businesses that could sell bamboo products. And while her plans are grand, her ideas started quite simply with the flowering of her Chilean bamboo.
It only happens once every century and when it did, Heinricher patiently stripped off the seeds nestled in the pods and germinated them with the help of a local tissue-culture lab. Faced with the problem that she would have no more seeds once her seedlings sold, Heinricher teamed up with Randy Burr, the man who engineered the commercial propagation of Boston ferns in 1973. Burr took on the challenge of trying to clone bamboo. Before tissue culture, it wasn’t feasible to farm bamboo on a large-scale because of the lack of seeds or division to plant. Given their reputation for invasiveness, most would think they would grow easily but in reality there is a definite lack of seeds as most only flower every 60 to 120 years and propagation by division is labor intensive and good results are not guaranteed.
But after four years of trial and error, Burr developed the correct formula for Crookstem bamboo and then Sunset Glow, a mountain clumper. The pair were now ready to grow bamboo on a commercial scale in the United States. So where to begin?
Though most would think that this type of alternative farming is best left to the Pacific Northwest, it is the American South that offers the best climate and soil conditions for growing bamboo. Long left untilled, the soil of the South is ready for a new crop after inexpensive cotton imported from Africa and Asia made domestic production come to a halt. One might consider that bamboo (specifically the moso bamboo species) is the quietly waiting in the wings to become the new cash crop for the US.
Heinricher certainly has this thought and in a recent tour through Alabama, she spoke with farmers, community leaders and university officials about the many benefits of growing bamboo in their region. First and foremost, it would create jobs in one of the poorest regions in the United States. Secondly, it will fulfill a huge need in the United States as the popularity of bamboo grows. (Heinricher has already talked with companies ranging from Target to M3, and even Starbucks who is looking to use bamboo for its cups). Third, the growing of bamboo domestically would not only encourage more use of an environmentally-friendly material but it would also revive the Southern United States ecologically. While cotton-growing has devastating environmental effects, bamboo is a plant that can be harvested by cutting down instead of pulling up roots and it also requires no pesticides or fertilizers to grow thus saving the groundwater from possible contamination.
And in a region that is still water-logged from Hurricane Katrina and lacking a natural barrier against the ever-growing BP oil spill, bamboo can help steady up the shores and provide, once again, some protection from erosion and flooding.
As the United States looks about for economic and environmental recovery, the mighty bamboo plant can help lead the way.
(Photos courtesy of Tom Reese/The Seattle Times)