Former Alabama First Lady Marsha Folsom was exposed to an idea several years ago that grabbed her and never let go. It was the idea that Alabama’s Black Belt would be a perfect region for growing bamboo and would benefit from the resulting increase in economic activity.
But isn’t bamboo a China thing? Can Folsom be serious about bringing it to the Black Belt and the region’s lagging economy?
Absolutely serious, says Folsom, a self-described advocate for various causes, including childhood education, economic development and poverty issues. Now you can add bamboo in the Black Belt to the list.
For almost five years, Folsom has been working to help start an up-and-coming company called Resource Fiber, which is growing bamboo and will soon start manufacturing bamboo products in the Black Belt. It is the only company that both grows bamboo and manufactures bamboo products in the United States.
“Bamboo is uniquely suited to the Black Belt, ” says Folsom, a co-founder and chief development officer for Resource Fiber. “It’s the right climate and has great soil for it. We are actually bringing a brand new industry to a region that’s familiar with agriculture, familiar with wood and timber production and the manufacturing and processing of timber. Bamboo offers the potential to create new jobs and all the good things that go with that. I think it’s a perfect marriage.”
Folsom presents a persuasive case. Bamboo is a booming, $35 billion industry and is expected to continue growing significantly. The United States is the world’s largest importer of bamboo products, yet virtually no bamboo is grown in the U.S. That presents a huge opportunity for Resource Fiber.
Two key people at Resource Fiber are more than well-known in the bamboo industry and have established a strong success story there. That would be Ann and David Knight of Seattle, Washington, who also are co-founders of Resource Fiber. In the world of bamboo, they have been there, done that.
In 1998, the Knights started what is now one of the nation’s leading bamboo flooring brands, Teragren, using Chinese-grown and manufactured bamboo. They remain large shareholders in Teragren, which has more than 2, 500 retail outlets in the United States with multiple customers internationally. But the Knights no longer hold board positions or manage day-to-day company operations.
“For Ann and me, our passion these days is growing a bamboo company based on sustainable concepts in Alabama’s Black Belt, ” says David Knight, Resource Fiber’s president and CEO.
Resource Fiber was created through happenstance. It started when Folsom first spoke with David Knight by phone about a matter unrelated to becoming bamboo business partners. But one thing led to another, and then the pieces started falling into place.
“David and Ann were in the next phase of what they wanted to do (after Teragren), which was to bring bamboo growing and manufacturing to the United States, ” Folsom says. “I talked them into coming down to Alabama, and we’ve been together ever since.
“We put this company together in the den of our house in Cullman. David and Ann came, along with other co-founders, Craig Thomason and Dr. Jonathan Scherch. There were about 10 of us, most of whom are still on our advisory board. We met for three days, and that’s how Resource Fiber began, in November 2011.”
Bamboo can be used in thousands of products — everything from furniture and flooring to material for 3D printing and alternative energy sources and textiles. What’s more, it is a rapidly renewable resource with several benefits for both growers and the environment.
Bamboo is as strong or stronger than any other kind of wood and yields 20 times more fiber than trees, so it doesn’t take as much land to grow bamboo. It is actually a perennial grass that, when cut, grows back essentially on its own. No replanting is required once a stand is up.
Because it grows so fast, timber bamboo can be harvested annually after reaching maturity in 8 to 10 years. Comparing bamboo to pine – think 20 years for pine to mature versus 1 year for bamboo.
Bamboo captures five times more carbon than a similar-size area of trees, which helps reduce the amount of greenhouse emissions. It requires little water and fertilizer and no pesticides to grow. Resource Fiber’s nursery, near Eutaw, in Greene County, is managed with a companion planting program that protects the soil and local wildlife, unlike the monoculture cotton farms of old that wore out the dirt through negligent growing practices.
The 100-acre nursery is the largest in the U.S. and will produce an estimated 17 million bamboo plants in the next 20 years.
“Our goal, by about 2020, is that we will have planted our own farm, ” says Knight. “The nursery, over the next 15 to 20 years, will generate enough plants to populate roughly 100, 000 acres.
“We are planning to plant the first five or six thousand acres ourselves on property we control, because that will allow us to furnish the farmers with management protocols, companion planting schemes, all of that. By about 2020, we will have excess plants that can go to the farmers, landowners and the like.
“Part of the reason we located in Alabama is because there a number of small farmers here, and what we want to do is support them by selling them the plants out of the nursery, and we can provide management services, management protocols and also contract to buy back the harvest when it matures. We have different ways of working with the farming community.”
Knight says Resource Fiber has raised $2 million so far and is hoping to raise another $1.2 million before the end of the year. Also, in the fourth quarter of this year, the company will do its primary financing round, with a goal of raising $5 million.
That will coincide with the opening of an interim manufacturing facility in Greene County, which would replace a facility Resource Fiber now has in Tennessee. By 2022 or so, Resource Fiber plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Greene County.
The company plans initially to manufacture railroad ties, truck trailer bedding and construction joists made from its bamboo. It projects eventual revenues of more than $100 million, which would be only 1 percent of a $10 billion market for those products.
Resource Fiber projects having 181 employees in Greene County in 2021 and expects each of those jobs to spawn another 2.5 jobs indirectly. Eventually, the company sees thousands of new jobs in the Black Belt due to bamboo growing and manufacturing.
It has attracted at least two well-known Birmingham investors: Scott Bryant, who played major roles in Homewood’s Soho Square development and Birmingham’s 20 Midtown, and Bill Jones, former O’Neal Steel president and CEO and co-chairman of O’Neal Industries, along with his wife, Walker.
Says Jones: “This investment isn’t just the personal gain or personal reward vs. the risk. This is a very good potential benefit for our state. If it works, terrific. If it doesn’t, then I think it will have been a very, very good attempt to do something really good for this part of the state.”
Thus far, Resource Fiber’s development has been slow but steady. But now the company is on the verge of hitting the radar screen.
“They have been very prudent, ” Jones says. “Of all the information I’ve looked at, the projections and plans I’ve seen, they’ve all been carried out. And it’s because they are moving prudently, methodically, well-planned so that they just don’t get too far out ahead of themselves.”
The Knights are firm believers in protecting the environment and running a business so that it enhances the quality of life in the community. But David Knight is clear when he says that business comes first. He and his wife are “business people to the core, ” he says, adding that they “didn’t just wake up one day as bamboo environmentalists.”
“What we’re developing is the 21st Century business model, where there’s a balance with wealth creation, environmental responsibility and social responsibility, ” he says. “We feel very strongly that one does not have to give up wealth creation or sacrifice wealth creation to focus on being environmentally or socially responsible.”
Charlie Ingram and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.