Sam Hamlin - Woven Roots Fiber Podcast: Kenaf and Kentucky Innovation

Photos by Jake Degler; courtesy of Tree of the Field

Leaves of the kenaf plant. Photo courtesy of Tree of the Field; photo by Jake Degler..jpg

As part of my fellowship with Community Farm Alliance, I launched a brand new podcast dedicated just to natural fiber agriculture in Kentucky called Woven Roots. On Woven Roots: The Appalachian Fiber Story Project, we tell the story of how Kentucky farmers, artists, and entrepreneurs are building strong regional economies around natural fiber.

Kenaf crop, photo courtesy of Tree of the Field, photo by Jake Degler.jpg

Kentuckians have a rich history of growing plant and animal fibers to make the most basic of human necessities, such as clothes, shoes, and rope, to spinning fiber to weave together beautiful quilts, tapestries, and rugs.  While many fibers are now made from synthetic materials, there is a movement growing to return to natural fiber textile production. Natural fibers that come from plants and animals such as flax, kenaf, hemp, wool and alpaca fleece can produce fine quality textile right in our backyard in ways that aren’t harmful to our environment. Supporting the natural fiber sector benefits community farmers, as well as the health of our planet.

Robin Mason with key team members. Photo courtesy of Tree of the Field; photo by Jake Degler..jpg

In the most recent episode Woven Roots, I interviewed three women about their innovative work with kenaf. Kenaf, which has been grown for thousands of years for fiber, is an annual row crop in the same family as cotton and okra. It can grow as tall as 20 feet, and can be harvested and processed for the fiber in its stalk. Though most kenaf grown internationally is produced in India and China, kenaf grows well in Kentucky and the U.S. South and can be used to make a variety of products, including rope, twine, packaging materials, paper and cardboard, and even biodegradable plastics.

Click here to listen to this episode of Woven Roots! 

Hear about kenaf’s present, future, and past in Kentucky. Robin Mason, founder of Tree of the Field, talks about her innovative work with kenaf across the state, including in eastern Kentucky on top of mountaintop removal sites, as well as the potential future of kenaf in the sustainable energy sector. Elisa Owen, cofounder of EcoBridge Industries, speaks about the potential of kenaf to have big impacts on the economy in Kentucky and on the production of biodegradable materials. We close out the show with a conversation between me, CFA staff Maggie Smith,  and and Irene Thornsburg, a long-time member of the CFA, who grew kenaf in the 1990s as part of a CFA program to support tobacco farmers in figuring out new economic opportunities.