Aug 06, 2011 | Post by: admin No Comments

A Bamboo Revolution

A Bamboo Revolution

The owner-farmers of a cooperative plantation in Kipahulu are hoping to be the leaders in a "bamboo revolution."

Organized as a co-op last year, Whispering Winds Bamboo grows around 15 different species of timber bamboo on 20 acres, along with 18 species of ornamentals in a nursery. Partners Rich von Wellsheim and Ryan Zucco said they hope to get more people thinking about using bamboo to build small structures, and eventually to make it available as a construction material for major projects.

"It's just such a versatile plant – you can do so many things with it," Zucco said. "You name it, you can do it with bamboo."

The bamboo is part of a larger project to reforest the 180-acre property with tropical and native trees.

Zucco said the plantation had been working with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service Forest Stewardship Program under a 10-year grant to plant tropical timber like mahogany, teak and monkeypod, as well as Polynesian and native trees including koa, kamani, alahee and kukui.

While the NRCS grant helps with the cost of the reforestation project, the founders of the plantation also decided to look for a faster-growing crop that could act as an "economic engine," Zucco said.

They settled on bamboo.

They planted a variety of species that range from 2 inches to 10 inches in diameter, focusing on 4-inch poles, "because that's the equivalent of a two-by-four," von Wellsheim said.

They also chose noninvasive varieties.

"Ours are all clumping bamboos that don't run and spread around," he noted.

Zucco said workers paint new shoots with a color code each year, so that they can keep track of their age and harvest them at the ideal level of maturity.

After the bamboo is cut and trimmed of branches, workers drill down the center of the stalk, then fill it with a nontoxic borate solution that protects it from termites. After being treated under pressure, the poles are then stacked for two to three months to cure.

So far, the plantation has sold poles to builders working on small projects that don't require building permits, such as home play structures, park benches, cabanas or chicken coops.

But von Wellsheim said the plantation is working on getting its poles certified by the International Code Council's Building Code for use in larger structures.

The council, which tests and assigns ratings to construction materials, must certify each lumber product not just by species but also by the location where it was grown, he noted.

Von Wellsheim said they chose bamboo as their "cash crop" in part because it's fast-growing and easy to maintain, and is also effective at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and holding onto the soil to prevent runoff.

"Once you get it planted, it will produce poles for you year after year without having to retill or replant," he said. "And it's a delight to work under, just delightful to be in there."

Zucco and von Wellsheim had been working on the plantation as employees for nearly a decade when they formed a cooperative in 2010 and purchased the business portion of the operation, while continuing to lease the land from owner Neaulani Inc.

Under the cooperative, employees who work on the plantation for more than three years can become owners, sharing in profits and participating in some decision-making. The operation has seven employees. Zucco and von Wellsheim are the only employee-owners so far, although they expect to sign on a third in the next few months.

Von Wellsheim said one challenge they face is builders' lack of familiarity with bamboo as a construction material. The poles are round, may not always be perfectly straight, and are joined by pegs or lashings. But he said they're gradually winning over converts.

"We're leading the bamboo revolution," he said with a laugh.

He and Zucco said they hope to spark the interest of other landowners in bamboo as an agricultural product.

"It's everybody's responsibility to curb our imports of the dwindling West Coast forest, and to be creative and resourceful," von Wellsheim said. "Bamboo's an abundant resource, and the more we use it, the better off we'll be."

For more information about the project,

Comments are closed.