Why Use Grass Stems?
Early man recognized straw as a useful building product and a valued insulating material with weather repellant qualities. He used it as thatching and siding for primitive shelters, as a binder for mud bricks, and as insulation for homes or ice storage. A cushion of straw was also a warm dry bed.
Straw, a golden-toned byproduct of Oregon's Willamette Valley grass seed industry, has found new and exciting applications when bonded with a special resin similar to some that are gaining popularity in the wood products industry. These formaldehyde free resins give superior strength and weather resistant qualities with reduced environmental hazards to workers and users. Development of new and lower cost release agents help avoid the problems of boards sticking during the manufacturing process. The use of extenders or modifiers to the resin can also be cost effective performance enhancements.
Wood Product Alternative
Due to the relative and perceived scarcity of wood in Europe and North America, extensive research is being conducted into use of annual plants as an alternative to wood products. This is further evidenced by the formation of several straw-to-board business that provide consulting, equipment and board production in North America and other parts of the world. Several of these new efforts include Daproma of Sweden, Compak Systems Limited of England, Isoboard Enterprises of Canada and the United States, Prime Board of North Dakota, Prairie Forest Products of Kansas, and Fibertech International of California. PanelWorld magazine, the primary trade publication of the plywood and composite panel industry, has featured numerous articles concerning the emerging "Alternative Fibers" business sector. Numerous papers about agricultural fibers have been presented at the annual Particleboard/Composite Materials Symposium at Washington State University and at other wood products industry events.
In the 1940's through the 1970's, straw was used as a board material by several short-lived companies in the United States, such as Stramit Ltd., in Haver, Montana, and other types of small operations in South Dakota, Arkansas, California, and Texas. Some of the newer facilities were touting a greater potential for success in North America and other parts of the world. Now many of these late 1990 facilities have also become short-lived for various reasons, including lack of capitalization to pioneer new markets. These failures make financing more difficult but do not reduce the need for effective utilization of agricultural crop residue as resources.
Air Quality Improvement
The Oregon ryegrass board products came into being as a possible alternative to air quality problems that result from open field burning after grass seed harvest. The climatic and soil conditions of the Willamette Valley are ideally suited to the production of grass seed. Willamette Valley growers produce about 60% of the grass seed used in the world. Ryegrass, the most common variety is used extensively for pasture and erosion control, although it is most visible and commonly known for its use in lawns and recreation turf such as golf courses. Production of seed entails removal of about 600,000 to 1,000,000 tons of straw from the fields each year. Field burning after harvest is the most efficient removal processes, and is very important for control of plant diseases such as ergot. However, the smoke creates air quality problems because of the airflow patterns and topography of the valley area.
During the early 1970's, the environmental issue of smoke pollution became such a concern that legislation was adopted that would ban all open field burning by 1975. Numerous programs were encouraged by the newly formed Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to find alternate uses for grass seed straw. One of these areas of study was the manufacture of board from straw. Various individuals, corporations and institutions studied several types of board production. These efforts ranged from small plaques to be hand-made and sold at fairs and shows, to full-scale Medium Density Fiberboard operations. The most prominent work was conducted by the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at Oregon State University as a portion of several solid waste management studies. During this same period, methods of reducing air pollution by controlled field burning were improved. Most of the other alternatives were determined to be technically feasible but not economically efficient. This realization led to a waning public interest toward funding research for alternatives.
The Oregon Women for Agriculture, however, persisted with a decorative straw product to sell as small plaques for Christmas gifts, at the same time trying to encourage further research and production. Leonard Opel, a grass seed farmer, became interested in the project in 1976, doing some preliminary research and testing with Dale Rose and another associate. They established a small development effort to expand on the previous research. They determined that the stems of ryegrass could be effectively used to make durable boards. The results of their work were full 4' x 8' panels with numerous potential uses, which led to construction of a plant and incorporation as KRO Strawboard, Inc., on November 1, 1977. The product lines were represented and new lines were developed for the gift, display and furniture industries under the trade name of Designs in Strawboard by Keith Gorzell and associates from 1979 through 1982. Designs in Strawboard merged into the company in November 1982 with Gorzell becoming Vice President and General Manager. The corporate name and structure were changed to Meadowood Industries, Inc. to improve brand name awareness and provide for business expansion.
More stringent environmental regulations were enacted by the 1991 Oregon Legislature. These regulations have incrementally reduced the Willamette Valley acreage allowed for open field burning from an initial 250,000 to approximately 40,000 acres in the 1999 season. These regulations have increased the amount of acreage that must remove material after grass seed harvest. Only a portion of the available straw is suited for quality board production. Open field burning is the most effective control for certain plant diseases. Expensive changes in cultural practices such as removal of straw, then propane burning or shredding, followed by chemical application have evolved as alternative methods for most disease control. Growers must also pay fees to the Department of Environmental Quality to register and burn fields. To maintain profitability, the growers must recover the fees, the costs of straw removal, and the costs of disease control.
Finding an Economic and Environmental Balance
The burgeoning service and information based economy in Oregon and much of the nation is shifting public perception away from the importance of agriculture. Several years ago, the mayor of a large Willamette Valley city addressed a gathering of grass seed farmers and community activists who were concerned about issues of smoke from field burning. He announced that farmers and field burning were no longer necessary because there was plenty of food on the supermarket shelves. This statement was made without realizing how much the Oregon grass seed industry helps put food and fiber on shelves all over the world. The number of grass seed growers continue to decline as the remaining growers expand the size of their operations to reduce costs and become more efficient. Fewer farmers and greater urbanization are rapidly changing the balance of political power. As a result there is less understanding or appreciation for the source of food and fiber, and why these staples are relatively inexpensive. Such factors are tending to drive legislative direction from incentive to penalty for open field burning.
The issues of burning agricultural crop residue are not peculiar to Oregon. California, Washington, other states, and other nations have enacted stringent legislation in response to regional pressure and in an effort to achieve compliance with air quality standards. The economics of halting all field burning brings forth complex issues of enjoying clean air while maintaining a reliable supply of relatively inexpensive food and fiber. Regulatory solutions are in need of economic solutions to achieve the desired balance of clean air and sustainable agriculture.
An Alternate Use
Meadowood Industries, Inc. is proud of current product developments and welcomes opportunities to innovate new uses for agricultural crops. Meadowood is also very mindful of the major investment and significant financial risk required to achieve successful board production. Securing substantial capital investment for a plant and pioneering new product markets requires some confidence in regulatory stability. Stability helps the growers confidence to assure the reliable long term supply of ryegrass. Stability also helps buyers with the confidence for long term purchase agreements. Meadowood believes that successful full-scale board production will be achieved. Prudent economics dictate that a cost effective board plant must be sized no larger than the available high quality straw expected in a low crop production year. Growers must also have other viable options for straw disposal and disease control. Therefore, a successful Meadowood facility will be an advancement toward sustaining agriculture by the use of annually renewable alternative resources with environmental benefits of assisting in a partial solution to field burning.
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