Brent Brasher could've almost charged admission, what with all the folks stopping alongside his fields on Highway 35 in south Tallahatchie County, Miss., to see what was going on.
It's not often you see a lot of harvest equipment going full speed ahead in late February, particularly when the field's full of nothing but desiccated 15-foot stalks.
I was standing at the edge of the field, watching the huge green Claas forage harvester chomping up kenaf stalks.
In between shooting photos, I answered questions for those who stopped to ask about all the activity (Brent was driving one of the boll buggies shadowing the harvester and didn't have a lot of time for PR work).
A panel truck bearing a medical equipment insignia pulled to the side of the road and the driver rolled down the window. “I just have to ask: what's going on?” he said.
I gave him a quick synopsis of what I'd just learned about kenaf from Brasher, the solitary kenaf grower in those parts who manages commercial viability from the crop 15 years after everyone else gave up on it.
When the original venture to grow kenaf for paper pulp went bust, he and his wife, Gabriela, took over the processing plant and looked for new products that could add value to the crop. Kengro kenaf products for oilfield, industrial, and other uses are now sold nationally and internationally.
“It's a very versatile plant,” Brasher says, “but it's worthless if you don't have a market. It makes great particleboard, for example, but the infrastructure isn't in place to support that market. We concentrate on the things we know we can do and produce at a profit.”
Most of their 2,600-acre operation is in soybeans, with some corn some years. Except for their yet-undetermined kenaf acres, everything else this year will be in soybeans.
Even though he has boll buggies and module builders, he's grown no cotton since 1998.
“As the U.S. faces more world competition for cotton, we're gradually losing the infrastructure that's been in place for decades. I think cotton's long-term salvation will be in finding new and profitable uses from the seed. I think there's a lot of unexplored potential there.”
Brasher admits to a keen interest in exploring alternative uses to add value to crops that can be produced in Mississippi.
“We're working with Mississippi State University chemical engineers on a revolutionary process to remove glycerin from wastewater in the biodiesel production process. This is a big problem for the biodiesel industry, and we believe this process has a lot of commercial potential.
“We're also working with them on production of syngas, which has potential for the next generation of biofuels. It's a really neat concept.”
And while much of agriculture's emphasis today is on ethanol production, Brasher and the MSU engineers are running a distillery to produce spirit alcohol from Mississippi crops.
“We've made some very tasty schnapps from sweet potatoes,” he laughs. “And there could be potential for use of fruits, rice, corn, and other crops for making spirits alcohol.”