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.

A look at production costs

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.

Steps toward profit

Kemp explains that the whole process of making a profit growing flax involves much more than simply growing the crop. The seed has to be harvested, flax stalks have to be harvested and baled and the bales have to be transported to the NAT plant in Kingstree, S.C. 

Growing 50 acres, he says, wasn’t a big logistic or timing problem, but growing it on a large scale will require a big investment in infrastructure.

NAT has made a significant investment in flax in South Carolina. For starters, Kemp notes the company invested $1.5 million in seed and provided them to growers at no cost for the 2012 growing season. They also bought eight stripper-headers and 16 drum mowers, made in England, for growers to use to harvest flax.

Carolina Eastern is making an $8 million investment at their Pamplico, S.C. facility and for a long-term lease of the vacant Delta Mills spinning facility, which will be used to process flax grown in the area. Both investments will contribute significantly to the rural economy by providing value-added jobs to the community.

“Next year, we hope to increase flax acreage in South Carolina to 35,000 acres and within a few years to 100,000 or so acres.”

NAT needs at least 35,000 acres of flax production in the Carolinas to use in their Kingstree plant, which will produce an 80:20 blend of cotton and flax to produce fabric for use in clothes manufactured by Levi Strauss, Haines and other U.S.-based clothing companies.     

Duncan Skelton, business manager at Carolina Eastern-Pamplico, has the daunting task or organizing and timing delivery of harvest equipment to growers contracted to grow the crop.

Skelton, who works extensively with growers, says flax production is like most any production process —t he more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

“We have some growers who will do really well with flax this year. They are the ones who paid special detail to planting the crop of a level surface, who have made timely applications of fertilizer and pesticides and who will get the crop dessicated and harvested on time,” he adds.

For growers who put the time and effort into flax, the rewards can be comparable to most crops grown in South Carolina. Kemp says he expects to cut close to 2.5 tons of flax per acre from his fields. He will be paid $165 per ton for the fiber. He also can harvest the seed and get another $10 per bushel.

With NAT providing the seed and picking up the flax stalks from the field, the input costs are much lower than other crops, he adds.

In addition to helping the off-season cash flow for growers, flax can frequently be harvested in the Carolinas early enough for growers to plant cotton or peanuts behind it. Even if the flax seed are harvested, flax should be out of the field earlier than wheat.

If growers choose to grow flax strictly for the fiber (stalk), even corn will be an option as a rotation crop. Kemp notes that once flax is harvested, it leaves a nearly perfect no-till or minimum tillage planting surface.

Growers interested in learning more about flax production in the Carolina’s may want to attend a field day on May 16, at the PeeDee Agricultural and Research Center in Florence, S.C.

rroberson@farmpress.com