Brent Brasher has a keen interest in exploring alternative crops and looking at ways to add value to crops that can be produced in Mississippi.

He farms with his wife, Gabriella, and the main crop on their farm in Tallahatchie County, along the bluff hill line bordering the flat Delta to the west, is soybeans. Their secondary crop is kenaf, which generated a lot of interest in the late 1980s, then faded for lack of markets.

They may well be the only Mississippi producers still growing the fiber crop, from which they manufacture a number of commercial products at their Kengro facility at Charleston, Miss. They planted 325 acres this year for harvest next spring.

In the past, they tried rapeseed, which went through a brief phase in the Delta, then vanished, and in 1998, after a disastrous crop, regretfully said adios to cotton.

In a departure from the more common single-row and twin-row soybean production, this is the third year the Brashers have planted their crop in triple rows on 60-inch beds.

But Brent is quick to point out that on the Tallahatchie County farm “there wasn’t any production advantage behind the decision — it was just a matter of convenience.

“My wife, Gabriela, and Billy Walker, partner/manager of their Delta farm at Sunnyside in Leflore County, Miss., had been using this planting system because of the efficiency advantage it offers in irrigation management. On their Delta land, where the grade is 1 percent or less, with furrow irrigation, water flow down the middles is slow enough that the beds are adequately watered through and through.

“On our farm here along the bluff, we don’t have irrigation and the grade is 3 percent to 4 percent. With that much slope, water from rainfall runs down the rows too fast. The two outside soybean rows are watered adequately, but water often doesn’t saturate the bed enough for the middle row.”

Brasher says he had rather plant his beans twin-row, “but I opted to do this mainly for convenience, so I could use the same planter I use for kenaf and wouldn’t have to bring equipment from the other farm.

“This is the third year we have planted triple-row beans here and while they’ve performed well, there has been no difference in yield compared to single-row or twin-row.”

They use a John Deere vacuum planter and the beans are Pioneer 94B73, a Maturity Group IV, with a seeding rate of about 120,000 plants per acre. They were planted April 12, all no-till.

“This is our sixth year to plant soybeans no-till, and it has worked quite well. I try to use no-till everywhere I can, but I have to come in and do tillage after the kenaf crop harvest because there usually are a lot of ruts and compaction afterward.

“We applied Roundup to the soybeans May 22, the only herbicide application to the land since burndown. We got really good results from this year’s burndown, unlike 2009 when it rained so much.

“When we started harvesting last fall, we were cutting 68 bushels of beans. Then the deluges came — the biblical 40 days and 40 nights of downpours — and five weeks later when we were able to get back in the fields, yield had dropped to 32 bushels. Thankfully, we had crop insurance to protect us.”

Given a normal growing season this year, he’ll apply Gramoxone pre-harvest and begin cutting beans at the end of August or early September.”

Brasher hasn’t grown cotton since a disastrous crop in 1998, when he was hit with “tremendous worm damage and seed quality issues.

“My wife and I would wake up in the middle of the night, look at each other, and wonder how we were going to make it. There’s nothing more enjoyable than growing cotton —when everything’s going just right — but farming sure has been a lot less stressful since we stopped growing it.”

Brasher first planted kenaf in 1987, “mainly out of curiosity to see how it would grow.

“About 20 years ago, there was interest in kenaf for pulp for paper manufacturing, and quite a few farmers planted it. There was a co-op here, but there was a two or three-year delay in getting the processing plant up and going, and a lot of the kenaf was lost from exposure to the elements. A lot of it was just burned.

“The co-op went out of business in 1997, and we took over things from there, and concentrated on growing and processing it for niche markets. There are many uses for kenaf, but we concentrate on the things we know we can do and produce.

“The most the co-op ever planted was 2,800 acres in 1993, but since we became the sole growers, we’ve pretty much tailored acreage to what we expect to need to service our markets.”

In recent weeks, Brasher has been in Louisiana, talking with representatives from the Department of Defense and Mississippi/Louisiana state governments about potential uses for kenaf in coping with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Pulverized kenaf is an extremely absorbent material,” he notes. “We’ve sent a few bags of product down there and can provide more if it’s needed. We have about 20 truckloads in inventory and another 70 or so in raw form that can be processed. BP has been a customer for our products for a long time for their refinery and land-based production.”

Demand for the Kengro kenaf products has been increasing yearly, Brasher says. “Even before the oil spill, our business was up 47 percent.”

The oil spill has helped spur additional plantings in North Carolina, he says, and Malaysia has boosted production quite a bit.

“Thus far, Malaysia hasn’t been a significant competitor for U.S kenaf. Most of the products we make use the plant core, while the Malaysians mostly use the outer fiber.

“We have R&D under way on additional kenaf uses for the plastics and building components industries, and we’re working with the Mississippi State University Forest Products Laboratory and Cornell University on several technologies.”

This year, for clients, he’s also growing research plots of miscanthus, a biomass grass, and sugarbeets for ethanol. “We have 4 acres of the grass and 3 acres of the beets (six varieties) and will evaluate growth and yield performance.”

Materials handling — drying, harvesting, baling/modeling, transportation and storage — are challenges for some of the grasses and sweet sorghum used for biofuels, Brasher says. “With sweet sorghum for biomass, you need to harvest almost daily and harvest year ‘round, which Delta farmers won’t want to do.

“Miscanthus can be handled much like kenaf, in that it dries down quickly and can be moduled for handling/transportation.

“Of all the biofuels crops I’ve worked with, sugarbeets may make the most sense for this area. Beets produce simple sugar, which doesn’t require a lot of enzymes to break down the sugar for biofuels production.”

Sugarbeets are usually a winter crop, planted in September and harvested in April or May, Brasher notes. “But they’ll also grow well in summer, so you could plant a second crop after harvesting the winter beets.

“Out west, they’re getting 27 tons to 35 tons per acre, but we think it may be possible to get 45 tons to 60 tons in the Delta.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com