On a gorgeous late February morning, with sunny blue skies and 70-degree temperature, Brent Brasher's tractors, boll buggies, and module builders are running full speed ahead in an effort to keep pace with the big green harvester that's chomping through the field, churning up a swirling cloud of dust and chaff.
Wait a minute — harvesting in February, only a week following a lengthy siege of arctic weather?
“Couldn't be better,” says Brasher, who's on the downhill leg of harvesting the 500 acres of kenaf he and his wife, Gabriela, planted on part of their farm in the Leverette community in Tallahatchie County, Miss.
Although the crop bloomed and matured last November, he says leaving it in the field over winter helps to break down the lignin content in the plants, making late February a good time for harvesting.
Fifteen years or so ago, a number of farmers in the area grew kenaf, hoping it would find a growing market for pulp for paper manufacturing. A co-op was formed, but there was a two-year delay in getting a processing plant up and running, and in the meantime much of the baled kenaf sat in the fields deteriorating. Some of it was burned.
“As long as pulp prices were good, farmers could make some money on kenaf,” Brasher said, “but when prices softened it was a losing proposition.”
The co-op went out of business in 1997 and everyone wrote kenaf off as a failed experiment in alternative crops.
Everyone except the Brashers.
“We took over the processing plant and concentrated on growing kenaf that could be processed into products for niche markets.”
Kengro Corporation, located at nearby Charleston, Miss., now is a leading manufacturer of organic absorbents/bioremediation agents that have a wide range of uses, from neutralizing oil spills and wastewater treatment, to environmentally-safe bags for do-it-yourself vehicle oil changes and natural fiber mats.
The Kengro Biosorb products are widely used in oilfields and industrial operations in the United States, Canada, South America, and other international locations.
A recently-developed product, Delta-dri, is an organic granular industrial absorbent that is 10 times more absorbent than clay products, Brasher says.
All the products, he says, offer superior performance, are environmentally friendly, and 100 percent biodegradable.
“We pretty much tailor our acreage to what we expect to need for our markets,” Brasher says. “Last year, we harvested only about 175 acres; this year, we're up to 500.”
Of that, 240 acres were furrow irrigated. Yields average about 4 tons per acre dryland, 6 tons irrigated.
“It's grown much like cotton,” Brasher notes. “We planted this crop May 19 last year, using 5 pounds of seed per acre. Tainung II is the main variety we plant and is the top performer. We also plant some Everglades variety.
“We planted about 90 acres to a new variety, Whitten, developed at Mississippi State University.” (The variety is named for Rep. Jamie Whitten, who was from Tallahatchie County, was a powerhouse on the agriculture and appropriations committees, and upon his retirement, was the longest-serving member of Congress.)
“It's a great yielder,” Brasher says. “The stalks are huge, 16 feet to 17 feet tall. But lodging has been a major problem, so we don't know how it will pan out long-term.”
N-P-K fertility requirements are about the same as for cotton, he says. “We spray the fields with Roundup about four days after planting and hopefully, we're done. If we have to spot spray, we'll use Assure for grasses and MSMA for cockleburs.
“After planting last year, we immediately had two months with no rain, and the drought retarded early growth on the non-irrigated acreage, which affected stalk size and height.”
There are two components of kenaf, Brasher explains. The mast is the stringy, fibrous outer part of the plant, while the core is the thicker interior part. The core has the most value and the plant is cut as close to the ground as possible in order to get the larger bottom part of the stalk.
He uses a custom harvester from Kansas, who brings in a Claas forage harvester with an eight-row head to cut the kenaf.
“The machine will go through the field at 8 mph or faster,” Brasher says. “It will harvest 75 acres per day. The plants are chopped into 1-3/4-inch to 2-inch pieces. We've found this is the most effective way to harvest. In other parts of the country, they've used sugarcane and other harvesting systems, but there's a lot of clogging, so the trend is to chopping.”
The chopped material is blown into boll buggies, then dumped into module builders, which turn out 6-ton modules that are transported to the processing plant.
“We usually start up the plant about March 15,” says Ernest Brasher, Brent's father. “We can process 11 to 12 modules per day, with a crew of about 15 people.”
The kenaf is processed to different levels of fineness, depending on the intended use, and then bagged and palleted for shipping.