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Tuesday, June 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bamboo In High Demand As New All-Purpose Wood

Seattle Times Business Reporter

PORT TOWNSEND - For centuries, Asians have made houses, paper and clothes from bamboo. Now bamboo is being promoted as a solution for long-term American problems: the dwindling amount of wood, the shrinking role of the family farm and the growing volume of waste water.

Americans can - and should - use bamboo to build almost anything, some architects, environmentalists and engineers say.

Environmental advantages aside, people are finding they can use bamboo "just to make money," as one entrepreneur put it this weekend at the Pacific Northwest Bamboo Agro-Forestry Workshop here.

Bamboo is a high-protein grass that's a stronger and more easily replenished building material than wood. Taller and denser than other lawn plants, bamboo can suck large quantities of nitrogen and toxic metals out of water and soil. The thousands of varieties of bamboo also produce food for people and their livestock.

In Hawaii and Oregon, architects are using bamboo poles, bamboo fiberboard, and bamboo flooring to build houses that offer the environmentally conscious an alternative to wood.

In Concord, Mass., David Del Porto uses enclosed bamboo beds to clean waste water cheaply.

And in Kirkland, Simon Henderson, Daphne Lewis and Stuart Brune of Bamboo People are growing the equivalent of more than one ton of bamboo shoots per acre. They sell the shoots wholesale for $3 per pound.

Used commonly in the United States to create backyard screens,

"bamboo is getting beyond a garden plant," said Gib Cooper, who sells bamboo plants by mail from Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Ore.

Cooper's catalog mailing list has grown from 1,000 in 1982 to 6,000 today. But the market for bamboo and bamboo products in the United States has not yet reached maturity.

The primary problem is bringing the supply to the United States. It can take 10 years for bamboo to grow to full maturity, and few people in the United States have been growing bamboo on a commercial scale for that long. Those who produce bamboo flooring and paneling say it can be as cheap or cheaper than wood, once large quantities of bamboo are grown locally. But now import costs raise the prices of many bamboo products in the United States.

Like Cooper, those who are selling plants now from nurseries said they are making a living doing it. Depending on the variety, a bamboo plant can cost between $6 and $500. But demand, like supply, still is in its infancy.

"I'm sort of like one of the Johnny Appleseeds," said Naren Kartar, who owns A Bambu Sea in Saltspring Island, B.C. "The market will come along later and absorb what's there," he said.

With few people growing or using bamboo on a large scale, there's little information being circulated about how to grow it or use it best, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where bamboo needs more care than in areas such as the southeastern United States with warmer summers and more summer rain.

Carol Miles of Washington State University hopes bamboo can become a new high-value, high-yield crop for farmers in southeastern Washington. Just one acre of rich soil can produce many valuable bamboo shoots for food or bamboo poles for building, she said. But right now, she said, "we don't have any recommendations to give people planting bamboo."

She and other researchers are beginning to study bamboo this fall. They will get their first detailed results in several years, when the bamboo is first harvestable.

Then Miles said she may be able to help farmers create an entire bamboo system on a corner of their farms. Shoots and full-grown poles could be sold. Cattle or pigs on the farm would eat the leaves. The animal waste would then feed the bamboo, rather than threatening groundwater and soil in surrounding areas.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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