Growing flax is a little like jumping out of an airplane in that you had better be prepared and you had better be committed, says Pamplico, S.C., farmer and agri-businessman Tom Kemp.

Kemp grew his first crop of flax last year as part of a multi-part agreement between Canada-based Natural Advanced Technologies (NAT) and his company Carolina Eastern-Pamplico.

“We came out okay with our 50 acres of flax last year, but we sure learned a lot of things you can’t do when growing the crop,” Kemp laughs.

“For one thing, we found out the hard way you better have really flat land on which to plant flax. It will grow fine on irregular land, but it will be a nightmare when you start cutting it.”

On a warm April afternoon Kemp demonstrated exactly what he means about being committed to growing flax. He pulled a three-foot tall, nearly mature plant from the ground and an inch or so above the soil-line he snapped the stalk with less effort than it takes to snap a matchstick.

He then moved his fingers two inches or so further up the stalk and tried to do the same thing. “Once you get into the fiber, it just won’t break. You can’t cut it and don’t even think about going in and Bush-hogging a field of flax, he says.

“As long as you stay in that 1.5-2-inch area above the soil-line, cutting and harvesting flax is no problem. To do that you must have flat land, because once the cutting blade starts bouncing up and down, flax harvest is over,” he adds.

Despite the steep learning curve, Kemp says flax is a really interesting crop to grow. This year he planted 150 acres of flax, took special care to level the land and basically learned from his prior mistakes.

Flax likes wet soils — the wetter the better, Kemp says. He points out an area in one of his flax fields that typically looks like a lake. With flax planted there, the field of bluish-purple flowers appears to be a uniform surface.

The South Carolina grower says flax will not grow well on lighter, sandy soils. And, he says growers must use a yellow herbicide at planting to keep weeds under control until the flax plants have a chance to get up and growing and can shade out weeds. A problem is that flax is a green product, and there is a very limited number of pesticides that can be used in growing the crop.

Throughout the spring flax has a distinctive bluish-purple flower that comes out early in the morning and late in the afternoon. The tiny flowers, with any kind of breeze, make field of flax look more like a slow moving tranquil ocean surface than part of the South Carolina landscape.

“This year we have about 3,200 acres of flax planted by 15 growers in South Carolina. Ideally, next year we hope to get to 35,000 acres and up to 100,000 acres in the next few years,” he adds

The flax grown in South Carolina will be used as stock for a new production facility being built by NAT in Kingstree, S.C. The company will use a patented process called Crailar to produce a cotton-flax blend to be used in clothes for Levi Strauss, Haines and other high profile clothing manufacturers.