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Bamboo as a Cash Crop in Hawaii

The collapse of sugar prices and the closing of sugarcane plantations in the Hawaiian Islands have local governments and landowners scrambling for new uses for former plantations and jobs for the people that worked them. In an effort to address the problems of unemployment and unproductive cropland, Hawaiians are exploring the possibilities of bamboo agriculture. Global demand for eco-friendly bamboo products is steadily rising and Hawaii's fertile volcanic soil and climate are perfect for growing this species of grass that was once considered a nuisance to sugarcane production. Plus, the root structure of bamboo is very effective at retaining moisture and nutrients in the soil and preventing the erosion and soil degradation from decades of sugarcane production.

But a recent study in the Philippines suggests that jobs in bamboo agriculture without additional jobs in bamboo processing will not provide many benefits. Vertical integration, processing raw bamboo into other materials is going to provide more value to the overall product and provide more local jobs as well. Countries that already appreciate the uses of bamboo such as Vietnam are seeing even more potential for construction materials development. This includes a new "ply-bamboo" that is actually stronger that standard plywood.

"Hawaii can develop a processing plant for approximately $800,000 that can create laminate, chipboard and plywood out of bamboo for local construction or export," according to Doug Lewis, owner of Bamboo Hardwood Company. He and his partner recently constructed a plant in Vietnam that is beginning production of similar bamboo materials.

It is estimated that the implementation of this kind of industry will take a ten-year commitment of at least 2,000 acres planted in bamboo. Though most traditional banks and lending sources may consider that duration before a return on investment too risky, this alternative industry may be just the kind of remedy that Hawaii is looking for.

Due to the islands' remote location, it is definitely in Hawaii's best interest to become more self-reliant and bamboo offers many opportunities to grow the economy beyond the traditional revenue streams of tourism and pineapple production. The transportation costs of bringing everything from toasters to lumber to the island make everything very expensive and if more products can be made from bamboo that is grown locally, it's a win-win situation for Hawaiians that need jobs and affordable goods.

More consumers are buying environmentally responsible bamboo products such as clothing, furniture, and flooring and if local companies can capitalize on this trend by manufacturing their own bamboo products, they can become less reliant on imports, keep more of their money in the area, and add critically important diversification to the economy.

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