Rob Parsons

Big on Bamboo

This could be the crop of Maui's future

by Rob Parsons

May 08, 2008

Can you believe we import $50 million
of this stuff yearly?

Can you believe we import $50 million of this stuff yearly? Outside my Haiku window is a stand of golden bamboo, catching the morning sunlight and swaying in the trade winds. From time to time I have selectively cut a few pieces of different sizes for a variety of purposes: fruit picker, coconut harvesting long-handled saw, curtain rods, garden plant stakes, and to hoist decorative flags.

On a recent trip to Bali, I noticed bamboo used for construction scaffolding, framing, railings, furniture, fences, flooring, ladders and more. I saw an entire shade house covering an acre of organic vegetables constructed entirely with bamboo.

So why not grow this versatile crop on Maui? While it grows here vigorously, and even invasively in many locations, it does not enjoy the wide array of uses that make it one of the world's most useful resources.

At least, not yet.

Within the next year, a Kipahulu grower will begin to harvest two-inch to three-inch diameter poles of bamboo, among more than 40 varieties planted over the past several years. Rich von Wellsheim of Whispering Winds Bamboo already has achieved a measure of success with nursery sales of bamboo varietals. Beyond that, he envisions a "culture of bamboo" with opportunities to provide food, shelter, protect our soils and watersheds and add more jobs to our local economy.

In a time when many conversations are turning to self-sufficiency, sustainability and revitalizing our economy, growing bamboo seems to outshine the status quo of importing virtually all of our building materials, and more than 90 percent of our food and energy needs. Bamboo is actually a family of plants in the grass family, found in both tropical and temperate climates, and native to all continents except Europe and Antarctica.

Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant in the world, with rates of three to four feet a day documented under ideal soil and climate conditions. Mature bamboo, though light weight, has a tensile strength greater than steel, and thus is prized for housing construction, bridges, and even as a substitute for rebar in concrete.

Bamboo shoots of many varieties are prized in Asian cooking, though others are bitter or even toxic. It's also the primary diet of China's Giant Panda, a docile vegetarian whose numbers have dwindled from lost habitat in a country that once had 40 percent of its primary forest standing in bamboo. Growing populations in many other countries means that demand can outstrip available resources, leading to over-harvesting.

Bamboo is trendy today, and expensive. The United States has a huge trade deficit in bamboo, importing $50 million worth of products yearly. It's used in durable and attractive flooring, paneling, curtains, musical instruments and even textiles for clothing. As a source for papermaking, bamboo out-yields hardwoods six to one.

Von Wellsheim cautions that bamboo can indeed be invasive, but that Whispering Winds cultivates only non-invasive "clumping" varieties. But upon reaching maturity, they will be selectively harvested and are never clear-cut like hardwoods.

The long-term plan is for 20 acres of bamboo, including ornamental, edible and timber quality varieties, inter-planted with nitrogen-fixing hardwoods. The 175-acre property, just below the Kipahulu Bioreserve portion of Haleakala National Park, also is the site of 40 acres of tropical hardwoods, planted by the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife, part of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Another 80 acres will be gradually cleared and restored with native Hawaiian plants.

Von Wellsheim also succeeded in gaining acceptance from the Maui Planning Department of his overall farm plan. That means they are going ahead with construction of farm worker dwellings, creating both housing and jobs in rural Kipahulu.

One of bamboo's attributes is the ability to produce up to a third more oxygen than trees, meaning it's one of the best crops in the world for sequestering the carbon dioxide emissions produced by our industrial society and internal combustion engines. Thus, aforestation projects with bamboo could be eligible for carbon credits, offsetting emission from other sources while we make the slow transition away from burning fossil fuels.

Another way bamboo can assist in environmental restoration is through holding soil in place and preventing erosion. It does well on steeper slopes, reducing runoff, and enriches poor soil with its own nutrient rich leaf litter, helping to restore depleted topsoil.

Once planted, there isn't a need to dig it up and replant every couple years, making it an attractive replacement candidate for water-thirsty sugar cane, still grown on some 36,000 acres in Central Maui. Planting bamboo could keep the fields green, provide more biomass per acre, prevent soil loss from wind erosion when mass acreage is tilled, and bring an end to burning, while providing viable economic opportunities for self-sufficiency.

Bamboo living structures has been the focus of Bamboo Technologies, founded by architect David Sands and builder/designer Jeffree Trudeau. They specialize in uniquely designed, pre-fabricated homes built to exacting factory standards in Vietnam, then disassembled into wall panels for shipping. Over a hundred structures have been assembled in Hawai'i and the Caribbean by Bamboo Living, sister company of Bamboo Technologies.

"Tre Gai" bamboo is extremely hardy and strong, with poles three inches to four inches in diameter, and was the first species to begin forest regeneration after Agent Orange defoliation during the Vietnam War. Twenty-nine provinces in Vietnam grow bamboo for domestic use and export.

Trudeau and Sands pioneered a treatment process with a vacuum pressured bath in a salt (boric) solution. The result changes the cellular structure from sugars and starches, so beetles no longer are attracted to it. Termites generally aren't a problem.

A typical 2,500-square-foot home made of Douglas Fir two-by-fours requires an acre's worth of trees, and 25 five years to mature. Built with bamboo, the same acre could provide necessary materials in seven years. Sands' custom designs incorporate bamboo structural poles where four-by-fours would go in conventional construction.

Sam Small lives in a bamboo home on Pi'iholo Road in Olinda, and is a Vice President for Developing Markets for Bamboo Living. "Everyone who walks in my house comments on how relaxing and comfortable they feel here," he says.

Small says his main structure, a 30-foot round (actually 12-sided) pavilion with vaulted roofs and a covered lanai, was assembled in just three days. Finish work, plumbing, electrical, caulking, and other details may take another four to six weeks.

But the basic covered, waterproof structure goes up extremely quickly, making it very useful if disaster relief is needed. But their bamboo homes are also strong, and have stood up to hurricanes.

Their certification process with the International Building Commission (IBC) has been arduous and expensive. The IBC certifies building materials per species, and location where they are grown, which means that bamboo grown here in Hawai'i would have to go through rigorous testing and lengthy permitting to meet building code standards.

Jericho Stringer of Yellow Seed Bamboo Nursery in Haiku works with Steel Timber Bamboo to import Guadua Angustifolia from Columbia. Their pre-treated, non-toxic poles are available for a number of construction uses. Yellow Seed also offers many varieties of nursery stock, non-clumping bamboo. Like Whispering Winds, they place an emphasis on sustainable local agriculture.

Yellow Seed states that they use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, opting for bone meal, azomite and worm castings for nutrients and wood chip mulching to add organic matter and increase soil microbial life. Their two-acre nursery, near the corner of Hana Highway and West Kuiaha Road, is open Monday through Friday.

Von Wellsheim sees bamboo as a viable crop throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Once certified, it could provide a myriad of building material applications, from carports to gazebos, and from rafters to main structural supports. When the "culture of bamboo" is established, he writes, people will be able to "grow their own house" in just five years.

Bamboo might even provide an innovative new way of looking at affordable housing in Hawai'i, as well. Sounds too good to pass up.

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