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Kugler, D.E. 1990. Non-wood fiber crops: Commercialization of kenaf for newsprint. p. 289-292. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Non-wood Fiber Crops: Commercialization of Kenaf for Newsprint

Daniel E. Kugler

    1. Before 1986
    2. 1986 To Today
  6. Table 1


Non-wood fiber crops can be used to manufacture many different products. What are some of these crops and what are they used for? Dempsey uses three broad product application categories: fine textile fiber crops, packaging fiber crops, and soft cordage fiber crops (Table 1). Fine textile crops (flax, hemp, ramie) have fine, soft, strong bast fibers that can be woven and used for fine apparel fabrics. Packaging crops (jute, kenaf, roselle) have coarse, soft, strong bast fibers that can be spun or woven and made into sacks, bags, carpet backing, webbing and coarse twine. Soft cordage crops (sunn hemp) have coarse and strong bast fiber used for twines, cordage, and, to some extent paper.

As a result of my work, I must add another category based only on potential use for manufacturing pulp and paper products and not on physical characteristics of the non-wood fibers. Some crops/fibers in this category include sugar cane bagasse, wheat and rice straws, bamboo, cotton stalks, reed, amur grass, and kenaf.

Are any of these new crops? No, most of these crops have been around for long periods of time and may or may not have undergone sufficient research and development to warrant economic activity in the private sector. This paper will focus on non-wood fibers in the United States which are new in the sense that relatively large-scale economic activity seems imminent. These conditions leave only one new non-wood fiber crop to consider. That crop is kenaf and the product of choice to initialize commercialization is newsprint.


The United States is blessed with an abundance of highly productive forestland which gives us a renewable resource base for a comparatively inexpensive and reliable supply of wood fiber for virtually all pulp and paper products. Location decisions by the pulp and paper industry for new mills and mill expansions heavily depend upon proximity to the fiber supply and the cost and security of delivered fiber. Because of our resource base, we in the United States think of different varieties of trees as being the only raw material for pulp and paper manufacturing.

For much of the world, the perspective is completely different. For example, consider the Peoples Republic of China, the cradle of papermaking. In 104 AD, the first paper was made from a mixture of bark, flax, and old fishing nets.

The China Technical Association of Paper Industry hosted the 1988 International Non-Wood Fiber Pulping and Papermaking Conference in Beijing. At this conference, wood was an unspoken word, reflecting the minor role it plays in the country's fiber supply. Sugar cane bagasse and wheat straw were the major fibers of discussion, partially because the fibers are residual to food production. Another crop, an annual hibiscus, was the topic of a special three-hour session attended by about one-fourth of the 240 participants from over 20 nations around the world.

The crop was kenaf, an annual, non-wood fiber plant naive to east-central Africa. The interest stems from world-wide activities and evaluations of the commercial potential of kenaf's raw material fibers principally for pulp and paper making. In China, for example, one small mill reports successful use of a blend of 40% kenaf with 60% wheat straw substituting for a blend of 85% reed with 15% kraft, an expensive chemical pulp which had to be purchased outside China on the world market.


What happens when we look to the United States and ask the question "What are the new non-wood fibers with sufficient research and development to warrant economic and business activity?"? To my knowledge, the only response is kenaf and, for this new crop, commercialization is imminent. Let me briefly describe how kenaf arrived at the brink of commercialization and provide information on the current situation.

Before 1986

Kenaf was introduced into the United States in the 1940s to be explored by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a substitute for jute in the manufacture of cordage products. In 1960, when the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) completed screening more than 500 plant species for their potential in pulp and paper making, kenaf was selected as the top candidate for intensive utilization research.

Studies of basic chemical and physical properties went hand-in-hand with continued farming advancements in areas such as breeding, agronomics, pathology, and economics. The Fibrous Crops Group at ARS's Peoria, Illinois, Research Center laid the ground work in technological feasibility for a number of kenaf products through in-house applications research and through agreements with private firms.

Newsprint was not only a feasible product, it was a product which the paper and publishing industries found to be of commercial interest. Pulp and newsprint qualities were sufficiently attractive for the private sector to participate in cooperative, applied research led by the USDA. Newsprint was also a very attractive product for agriculture because the whole plant is used in pulping and any business activity would require enough acreage to stimulate commercial agricultural development.

In 1977, efforts by USDA's Agricultural Research Service led to the first-ever pressroom run with kenaf newsprint at the Peoria Journal Star. Although the pressroom run was successful and plans for further development were prepared, USDA felt that sufficient scientific visibility had been achieved for the private sector to complete development and commercialization.

In fact, that is exactly what happened ... for a while. Sparked by the American Newspaper Publishers Association's (ANPA) interest and support, development of the newsprint technology and necessary pressroom verifications continued. Kenaf development saw pulping, papermaking, and limited pressroom runs in 1979 and 1981. The ANPA sponsored "General Feasibility Study: Kenaf Newsprint System" was well underway and headed for publication when, in 1981, a joint venture company, Kenaf International (KI), was formed for the express purpose of commercializing kenaf

This period of development for kenaf newsprint lasted roughly from 1977 to 1981. As newsprint became a more and more acceptable product in the eyes of industry, deficiencies in the agricultural sector became more apparent. Major gaps in agriculture which needed to be bridged included:

1986 To Today

After an appeal by KI for USDA to restore programs for kenaf, the Kenaf Demonstration Project was formed in 1986. The Project was and still is a USDA project led by the Cooperative State Research Service with the cooperation and participation of KI and major pulp, paper, and fiber companies in the private sector.

Two major barriers to commercialization remained, namely, fiber handling and verification testing of newsprint. Given the advancements made in agriculture during the early 1980s, initial Project activities were aimed at joint work with industry to prove kenaf newsprint as a technically sound, quality product. The work was conducted entirely within private industries' pilot facilities, research laboratories, mills, and pressrooms.

In every instance, each stage of product verification was reviewed for acceptance by at least two Project participants. In this situation, where plans to build a multi-million dollar mill were contingent on verification of the product newsprint, risk was high and executives demanded accountability outside of their own organizations.

The Kenaf Demonstration Project work confirmed earlier research and applications research results. Kenaf newsprint was shown to have many superior or acceptable performance and quality characteristics when compared to northern and southern pulp sources. In fact, some industry experts commented during these verification and commercial-scale trials that kenaf pulp is "too good for newsprint." The implication was that higher value-added paper and fiber products were likely in kenaf's future.

At this point, pulp and paper industry representatives turned to agriculture for verification of the capability to reliably harvest and deliver kenaf to a mill site. All earlier work in agriculture had shown that growing kenaf was relatively easy, inexpensive, and free from major disease, insect, and pest problems. It was felt that known disease problems could be adequately controlled with proper cultural practices and chemical applications in the short-run and with advances in breeding and genetic engineering in the long-run.

Fiber handling technologies were not adequate for commercial-scale agricultural production. Extensive field tests in 1986 with equipment borrowed from other crops (forage choppers, sugar cane harvesters, cotton module equipment) had shown that commercial harvest was feasible. However, for kenaf to come of age and satisfy engineers, executives, bankers, and financiers of the paper industry a harvest system exclusively for kenaf was mandatory.

Under the Kenaf Demonstration Project, design work for a harvest system began mid-year 1987 with a world-renowned firm H. Willett and Associates, Jeanerette, Louisiana. In full cooperation with KI and Canadian Pacific Forest Products, a kenaf harvester for the system was recently completed, field-tested in Louisiana, and transported to Texas for large-scale testing and evaluation.

In October 1988, the group directing agricultural commercialization of kenaf (Kenaf Agricultural Research Consortium) reviewed the harvester in action and concluded that "we're 90% there." The next groups to review the harvester and harvest system in action will be the fiber processing and product manufacturing industries. Verification of commercial agricultural capability will lead to continued action by the pulp, paper, and fiber industries to invest in product manufacturing facilities for kenaf fibers.


There was a time in my career when the only safe discussion of the future involved forecasts or projections of economic activity to a time period beyond my professional life. Although there was always a discussion of political economic impact and suggestions of policy alternatives to avert major problems, there was little, if any, accountability.

Now, as a public servant charged with implementing demonstration projects to commercialize promising technologies, my career and reputation are always on the line. Commercialization efforts need intense public/private cooperation and a mutual assumption of risk and financial responsibility for success. Commercialization efforts will not always work ... we must be as prepared for failure as we are ready for success.

In the case of kenaf, I am sure that businesses for kenaf fiber products will begin in 1989. The future includes newsprint and other kenaf fiber products. Newsprint is a proven commodity and business is in the final stages of planning and financing a kenaf newsprint mill for south Texas.

This year the Kenaf Demonstration Project will also help in a commercial demonstration of fiber separation technology. The separated fibers will be moved into testing and verification of several products other than newsprint. These products include poultry litter, automobile dashboards, carpet padding, corrugated medium, and composting material. I expect that one or more of these products will also see businesses established in 1989.

In short, the future for kenaf is bright, and I expect to be around when kenaf becomes a fiber of choice in the 1990s.


Table 1. Common name, genus and species, and family for Dempsey's non-wood fibers.

Common name Genus and species Family
Fine textile crops
Flax Linum usitatissimum L. Linaceae
Hemp Cannabis sativa L. Moraceae
Ramie Boehmeria nivea (L.) Guad. Urticaceae
Packaging crops
White jute Corchorus capsularis L. Tiliaceae
Tossa jute Corchorus olitorius L. Tiliaceae
Kenaf Hibiscus cannabinus L. Malvaceae
Roselle Hibiscus sabdariffa L. var. altissima Malvaceae
China jute Abutilon theophrasti Medic. Malvaceae
Soft cordage crops
Sunn hemp Crotalaria juncea L. Leguminosae

Last update March 7, 1997 by aw