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Morris, D. 1996. Non-woody fibers and the future of rural economies. p. 84-86. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Non-woody Fibers and the Future of Rural Economies

David Morris

Recent economic, technological and political changes are opening up vast new markets for agricultural waste fibers. These markets could provide the foundation for a re-industrialization of many rural economies.

Huge amounts of waste fibers exist (Fig. 1). The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) estimates that over 150 million tonnes of economically and environmentally recoverable waste fibers are available each year. This is as much fiber as is contained in wood used for all purposes.

Until recently, these fibers have been thrown away or burned. But disposal costs are rising. State bans on burning rice or wheat straw after harvest, for example, have spurred farmers to seek alternative uses of straw. Wood fiber prices have increased since 1991, a result of increased worldwide demand and a reduced cutting on some national forests resulting from environmental restrictions (Fig. 2).

The result of these combined market and regulatory forces has been to direct entrepreneurial energies into converting waste fibers into pulp, paper, and construction materials. An ILSR study, A New Industry Emerges: Making Construction Products from Cellulosic Wastes, estimates that in the construction materials market alone in 1994 about 28,000 t of agricultural waste fibers and urban waste wood were used to make construction materials. By the end of 1996 this could rise to over 450,000 t, and by 2000 to 1.4 million t. By the year 2000 as much as 630,000 t of agricultural waste fibers could be used for making construction materials. By that year the agriboard industry could encompass 15 plants with over 3,000 employees representing a cumulative investment of some $750 million. Sufficient raw materials exist in the United States to build more than 1000 plants (Table 1).

Vegetable fiber based construction board plants are already in operation. Vegetable fiber based paper mills are in the planning stage, aside from a few specialized mills that have been operating for many years. About half a dozen such mills are on the drawing board, including a rice straw based pulp mill in Northern California, a wheat straw paper mill in Eastern Washington and a corn stalk based paper mill in Indiana.

Agricultural materials are bulky and expensive to transport. Therefore they often are processed near where the raw materials are located. That translates into well-paying jobs in rural areas. Moreover, agrifiber enterprises lend themselves to cooperative ownership. More than 4500 agricultural cooperatives currently exist with sales of over $80 billion. But until recently these cooperatives were used to reduce a farmer's input prices or increase his or her sale price. They rarely were involved in value-added processing.

In the last 15 years a new wave of cooperatively owned manufacturing facilities has emerged. Some two dozen already exist, from pasta and ethanol plants in the north to kenaf and pants factories in the south. The coming wave of vegetable fiber based construction materials and paper could lead to hundreds of locally owned and rooted community businesses.

The local economic impact of these plants could be profound. Consider the impact of one proposed particleboard facility on Pickert, North Dakota. The plant will create about 140 new jobs. Finley, the largest city in the area, has a population of about 800. The facility will generate almost $3 million in additional wages for the local economy. It can save the farmers an additional $1 to $2 million in disposal costs for their wheat straw. It will generate $1 million in additional income for area farmers through the sale of wheat straw. And finally, if the facility were to be cooperatively owned, the area's farmers could earn another $1 million in dividends per year.

Agricultural waste fibers are forming the basis for an emerging industry. This form of plant matter should be viewed as an important new crop in American agriculture.


Table 1. Quantity of cellulosic wastes used for construction materials (panel and composite products). Source: Morris and Ahmed 1992.

Cellulosic wastes (t)
Material 1994 1996 est. 2000 est.
Wheat straw <9,000 229,050 630,000
Soy flour <270 810 16,200
Recycled paper 70,200 76,500 108,900
Urban waste wood 18,900 237,150 777,150
Total <98,370 543,510 1,532,250

Fig. 1. Comparison of available wastes and production of wood products (1993). Estimates of waste availability indicate amounts that can be feasibly recovered without decreasing soil fertility (for straws) or are currently not utilized (for municipal wastes). "Other Waste" includes bagasse and nut shells, "Other Wood" includes oriented strand board, medium density fiberboard, hardboard, and insulation board. Sources: Morris and Ahmed 1992; Franklin Assoc. 1992; U.S. Dept. Commerce 1995; Chris Edwardson pers. commun.; Pettijohn and Lorenz 1995.

Fig. 2. Average wood prices, 1983-1995. One board foot = 1" x 1' x 1', standard unit of measurement for lumber. Source: Anon 1993, 1995.

Last update August 15, 1997 aw