Kemp grew his first flax crop last year on a cost-plus basis to try and figure out how to grow the crop, and more importantly, what it would cost to grow it.

“I think that was a great idea on the part of NAT, and it shows their interest in helping farmers understand what all goes into growing flax in South Carolina and how much profit they can expect when the crop is harvested,” Kemp says.

“We didn’t get our first crop planted in time — it was early December when we planted it. We got a freezing rain right after we planted it, and for the whole month of December not one seed came up.

“On Jan. 10 we got a snow and ice storm. After that, I looked at the three fields in which we planted flax, and nothing — not even a weed seed — was growing there,” Kemp recalls.

Long-time Clemson University Extension Agent Russell Duncan, now retired and working with Eastern Carolina-Pamplico, has worked with Kemp on the flax project from the start.  Three days after Kemp looked at the frozen flax fields, Duncan saw a different picture.

“The flax seed finally came up, and we probably got a 30 percent or so stand. From those three fields, I cut a ton and a half of flax per acre. So that really piqued my interest in the crop, because it was clear that despite a lot of adversity, this crop can make a big recovery. And, we only put a little nitrogen and other fertilizer on it,” he adds.

This year, he says, he saw a similarly amazing recovery. In early February one of Kemp’s flax growers had his entire crop laid down by high winds — it looked like a disaster, he says. Now, you can’t tell anything bad every happened to that field of flax — it looks great, Kemp adds.

Kemp says for the first time South Carolina growers have ever had a crop that was sold and now the company wants people to grow it. Most of the time growers want to grow a crop, then we try to figure out how to sell it, he says.

There is a market for every part of the flax plant, not just the fiber, Kemp notes. The lignin in flax stalks, for example can be pelletized and used for fertilizer — we don’t know how much fertilizer we will get from a ton of flax, but we know there is a market for it, he adds.

The Latin name for flax is Linum usitatissimum L. Its Latin name means most useful. Flax stalks have been used for centuries to make rope and in more recent times, as part of the health-food craze, flax-onion crackers have been in high demand in many countries.

Flax is not new to South Carolina. It was grown several years ago for a paper company that used the high grade paper to roll cigarettes and for use in bibles. A number of people invested in growing the crop, only to see the market go away, and this has been a big hurdle for NAT to overcome in getting a new generation of South Carolina growers interested in growing the crop.