HERE on the south Texas plains, where neat rows of sugar cane, cotton, and orange trees dominate the landscape, a handful of growers are producing a crop that may help alleviate the increasing demand for wood-based paper products.
Kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family, grows up to 14 feet tall and produces more pulp per acre than pine trees. It could soon be a major crop on southern farms.
``As a renewable resource, kenaf is ideal,'' says Charles Cook, a geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture's research facility in Weslaco, Texas.
Mr. Cook says countries around the world are looking for alternatives to wood-based paper because their forests are shrinking.
``In the European countries, Argentina, and Mexico, their available fiber resources aren't there any more,'' he says. ``They don't have the forests they used to. But all of these countries have the opportunity to farm and that's where kenaf can fit in.''
Charles Taylor, founder of Kenaf International, based in McAllen, Texas, has been in the kenaf business since 1981. Now harvesting 550 acres of kenaf, he says he plans to grow 1,000 acres of the plant next year.
``We don't expect to replace paper made from wood,'' Mr. Taylor explains. ``But kenaf can take some of the demand pressure off forest fiber resources.''
Every year, about 4 billion trees are cut to make paper products. By 2010, worldwide demand for paper is expected to double. Studies have shown that producing paper from kenaf costs far less and uses less energy than paper made from trees. In addition, kenaf paper does not have to be bleached like wood-based paper, thereby reducing the amount of toxic chemicals required.
``Kenaf paper has a lot of properties that are not seen in other papers,'' Cook says. ``It is a bright paper, it stays white longer [than] wood-based paper.''
The USDA, Cook notes, has been investigating kenaf since World War II, when the supply of jute and hemp from Asia was cut off by the Japanese. Native to the semi-arid plains of East Africa, kenaf, a relative of cotton and okra, grows best in warm climates.
The USDA now spends more than $300,000 a year on kenaf research and is helping farmers in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and California to develop hybrid strains that are more resistant to disease and adapt to different climates.
NEWSPRINT may be one of the best uses for kenaf, Taylor says. He points out that more than half of the newsprint used in the US is imported and several publications have done successful tests with kenaf newsprint. Taylor is trying to finance a $50-million pulp mill that could produce 30,000 tons of newsprint a year.
Taylor also says kenaf could be a boon to the recycling industry. ``Kenaf has better blending characteristics with recycled paper than wood pulp,'' he says. The plant fibers can be used to make cordage or fabric.
Its leaves, which contain about 20 percent protein, show promise as a forage product for livestock. The inner core of the plant is sold for use as poultry litter, animal bedding, and as an oil spill absorbent.
The economics of kenaf are attracting farmers and papermakers in other countries. China grows about 600,000 acres of kenaf annually. Japan, Thailand, and Nigeria are also producing kenaf, Cook says.
American farmers will harvest about 4,000 acres of kenaf this year. Promoters claim the crop's potential is huge. In addition to the southern US, kenaf could be grown in Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America.
``It has the potential to be grown on millions of acres,'' Taylor says. ``But it won't happen tomorrow or next year. It will happen over the next four to five decades.''