David Benfield stood in his nursery and picked through the brown bones of brittle bamboo left in a makeshift graveyard of about 400 plastic pots.
“We haven’t had very much grow back,” Benfield said, searching for signs of green.
In February, the deep cold slipped in and froze bamboo roots tucked in about 500 pots. While freezing temperatures continued for days, the sun pulled moisture from the plants’ leaves that tried unsuccessfully to tap moisture from frozen root balls.
“What happened is they all dried up and died,” said Benfield, 38, owner of the five-year-old company Brightside Bamboo. “So all of a sudden, I have nothing.”
The challenge is the just the latest for Benfield, who, in his own words, is living the realities of chasing his passion for bamboo and sustainable agriculture.
International trade of bamboo centers on products such as edible shoots, furniture, flooring and paper. But typical bamboo small businesses in the U.S. include nurseries that provide related services, such as consulting, managing and harvesting one of the world’s fastest growing plant.
However, those interested in promoting bamboo, and its sustainable benefits, may be on the edge of a big opportunity as companies such as Kimberly-Clark, the world’s largest tissue manufacturer, announce moves to seek out fiber alternatives, such as bamboo, to save natural forests.
In June 2012, Kimberly-Clark announced a planned transition in which at least 50 percent of wood fiber sourced from natural forests would come from an alternative source.
When Jamie LeLiever and Edward Murgitroyd heard the announcement, a bell went off. Murgitroyd is an attorney and chief executive officer of Durham-based European patent and trademark law firm Murgitroyd. LeLiever is its chief marketing officer.
In 2012, the colleagues founded Raleigh-based National Bamboo. The company is working to orchestrate a massive bamboo production system in the state, sewn together on more than 500-acre tracks of timberland in five southeastern counties in the state.
“We are beyond the feasibility. We’re to the commercialization. In the next, really, six months, we fully expect to get a letter of intent from a major (bamboo) pulp producer to take on a certain amount of tonnage,” LeLiever said.
For the company to meet any tonnage projection, they have to find early adopters to take the risk and plant bamboo, which needs to for grow seven years before it can be harvested, he said.
Meanwhile, Benfield is hosting a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise $54,000 to start the American Bamboo Farm Network, a model bamboo farm and aggregator for other future farms in Central North Carolina. So far he has raised $85 from two donors since its April 15 launch.
Benfield got the idea for a farm while raising more than $20,000 in an ongoing GoFundMe campaign to cover restocking his inventory and a greenhouse.
Starting Brightside Bamboo
Benfield’s passion for bamboo stems from a question from a friend.
He was a sophomore at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles when, on a visit to his hometown of Durham, he started talking to a friend about farming, the degradation of soil and aging farmers.
The friend asked Benfield, as a Christian, what it means to be a good steward of the land.
The question sent him on a quest to learn more about permaculture, a methodical approach to agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems with sustainable and self-regenerative habitats.
Benfield left school his junior year to work as a web director for FrontPage Magazine, a conservative online journal edited by prominent writer David Horowitz. Benfield worked for the company for five years, spending half of that time in California and the rest in Durham.
The job provided a nice income, he said, but he didn’t think it was important. He wanted to change the world, and he felt like permaculture had a lot of answers to its problems.
Over the next few years, Benfield did web development for a national campus ministry, sold houses built from green materials and then cars. He married and had a daughter and a son.
After the car dealership closed at the end of 2008, Benfield decided “to step off the ledge.” He got a job as a part-time bookkeeper for Bountiful Backyards, a Durham company that specializes in edible and sustainable landscaping. He soon transitioned to a full-time job in the field.
Benfield started Brightside Bamboo in April 2010, working on it part time. He and his family moved in with his parents in Mebane and learned to live on very little.
“I had no money, no land, but I wanted to be a bamboo farmer and help people start bamboo farms,” he said.
If bamboo is planted correctly and managed, it isn’t a nuisance, Benfield said, but an evergreen with environmental benefits.
Benfield started approaching people with bamboo patches around the Triangle and asked if they would pay him to get it under control. Such jobs now typically range from $800 to $5,000.
Then, he would manage the patch for free along with harvesting bamboo and edible shoots, which he sold to a handful of restaurants.
Last year, he collected about 1,000 pounds of edible shoots, often found in stir-fry, and sold about 800 pounds to restaurants and distributors. It’s possible to yield profit selling shoots, he said, but not when you are harvesting them from pockets scattered around the Triangle.
Benfield left Bountiful Backyards in spring 2011 and focused on his company full time.
He used tax credits and a related refund to buy a $2,500 pickup truck and created a website.
Initially Benfield focused on consulting, but the model only yielded $14,000 a year.
He then decided to open a nursery, typically the most significant stream of revenue for small bamboo businesses. Plants prices range from $30 to $275.
Revenue for what has become one of the largest bamboo nurseries in the state increased each year since he opened the nursery initially in Durham. It’s now on space leased from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill.
Connecting with landowners
LeLiever and Murgitroyd sought out Benfield’s consulting services after hearing about Kimberly-Clark’s plan.
LeLiever then reached out to N.C. State University and paid $20,000 to fund a research study. Next, they invested to be a part of an industrial consortium, which includes a leading tissue manufacturer, a leading pulp producer, N.C. State and National Bamboo, he said.
“Our role is investigating the timber track analysis and viability and return on investment,” LeLiever said.
In 2012 and 2013, the company planted bamboo on 40 acres in Cumberland County.
National Bamboo is also working to connect with timber track landowners through a website it launched Monday. The company’s plan includes convincing land owners to plant bamboo, supplying them with bamboo plugs and securing a contract with a major pulp producer.
The company hopes to plant 75,000 acres of bamboo through working with other owners and land acquisition in the next 10 years.
“It is just the chicken and the egg. Who is going to get the supply going?” LeLiever said. “You have to have a seven year view, you just can’t snap your fingers,” and have bamboo.