Phoenixville, PA-based BioPhil Natural Fibers will soon be opening a second research facility for industrial hemp fiber and grain in North Carolina, the company said. Photos courtesy of BioPhil Natural Fibers
By Jean Lotus
The hemp supply chain for textile and grain has 99 problems, but a lack of consumer demand isn’t one of them, says longtime North Carolina hemp advocate and grower David Camby of Pennsylvania-based BioPhil Natural Fibers.
“Supposedly farmers say they’re not going to start growing until there’s demand,” Camby told Let’s Talk Hemp. “But there’s a huge demand. We get calls every day from people wanting [textile-quality] hemp fiber.”
This fall, the National Hemp Association (NHA) released an economic impact report at the request of the White House Domestic Policy Office, saying the domestic hemp fiber and grain sector is projected to have a $32 billion impact by 2030.
Camby, along with company founder Marcel Dabdoub, have built a hemp processing line from repurposed textile equipment and decortication technology in Phoenixville, PA, outside Philadelphia.
The company is based on a leap of faith in the demand for hemp consumer goods they know exists. Their website even draws inspiration from Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Field of Dreams who said, “If you build it, they will come.”
The company produces fiber bast, hemp hurd and hemp powder. BioPhil has a waiting list for the 99.5% cleaned fibers of raw hemp materials processed in the company’s Phoenixville facility.
Fiber bast (the outer bark layer) is degummed and spun into yarn for textiles, and also used for non-woven products such as car door panels, mats, rugs and wipes. Hurd, the absorbent inner stalk, is used for animal bedding, industrial spill cleanup and building materials. Hurd powder can be used in carbon-based bioplastics and biofuels.
But like other early adopter industrial hemp processors, the company needs the right genetic inputs to create hemp-based raw materials.
To build the supply chain, BioPhil Natural Fibers has provided to farmers imported seeds from China, where hemp textiles have been produced for 3,000 years, and guarantees a minimum payment per acre to grow the crop, Camby said. The company has also snapped up bales of hemp grown under contract for the now-bankrupt Sunstrand, a Kentucky-based early adopter processing facility.
“We have to build that relationship with farmers first,” Camby added. “For too long farmers have been bottom of the pole if something happens in the industry.”
But learning best growing and harvesting practices and how different genetics perform will take time, and that’s one of the kinks in the supply chain, said Kelly Anne Flynn, at Clemson University’s hemp research program, a long time colleague of Camby.
“The genetics are being stabilized, established and identified in conjunction with the industry growing, and it’s causing a little bit of a chaotic situation right now,” Flynn told Let’s Talk Hemp. She believes it will take “several more years” before different genetics are identified for specific industrial outputs.
However, BioPhil’s contracted hemp farmers are up for the challenge.
Rick Brown, the 4th -generation proprietor of a Black-owned Brown Family Farms in Warren County, NC, grew 48 acres of fiber and seed hemp on contract for BioPhil last year and is eager to grow more next year. The company runs a CSA organic vegetable business and has grown cannabinoid hemp for their Hempfinity brand.
“We’ve been growing cannabis since 2016 and we see hemp as the way to transition from traditional to regenerative crops,” Brown told Let’s Told Hemp.
Brown is eager to focus on industrial hemp crops for fiber and hurd, and has already had inquiries from Patagonia, the GAP and other national corporations.
”I see a ‘forever need’ for the products that are being created from hemp fiber production, as well as hurd,” Brown said.
But even with imported seeds, there still exists a learning curve to figure out the best growing and harvesting strategies. Last summer, the hemp on Brown’s farm grew so fast it was difficult to harvest at 15 feet tall, too tall and thick for the family’s traditional combines. Harvesting earlier would have resulted in thinner stalks easier for machines to process, he added.
As 2022 begins, BioPhil Natural Fibers is still charging straight ahead, Camby said.
BiopPhil is exploring options with multiple locations/states to set up other facilities to move forward in the hemp industries, Camby said.
BioPhil knows the demand for hemp textiles, protein products, building materials and bioplastics will continue to grow and the company wants to be among the first to supply the raw materials.
“We’re learning every year, and building that supply chain,” he said. The company is in for the long haul, knowing it will pay off in the future.
“Everybody wants that quick easy path,” Camby said. “But if you’re looking for that, don’t get into hemp.”
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Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.