In the past 10 or 20 years, the variety and availability of bamboo products has just exploded. From socks to towels to sheets to flooring, bamboo can do pretty much anything. And thanks to a preponderance of Moso bamboo from China, bamboo IS doing nearly everything.
The environmental benefits of bamboo have made it a top choice among eco-conscious consumers. And many of those consumers are also asking, “What about bamboo farming in the US?”
Yes, in fact, there is some commercial bamboo farming happening in America. Mixon Farms in Florida recently became the first commercial plantation in the nation, gathering their first harvest last summer (2019). But don’t expect them to cover the midwest with it. There are a number of reasons why farming bamboo in the US may or may not be a good idea.
Can you grow bamboo in the US?
Gardeners across the US plant bamboo as an ornamental and for privacy screens. In any of the 50 states, and in Canada too, you can find bamboo varieties that will thrive or at least survive. No, your bamboo might not perform to the best of its ability in a place like Vermont or Minnesota, but yes, it can grow.
Bamboo species to choose from
Now growing bamboo in your garden and farming it as a cash crop are two very different things. For the garden, there are hundreds of bamboo species to chose from, depending on the climate and the desired effect. But to farm bamboo and compete with China on the open market, there are just a handful of species worth looking at.
Until quite recently, all the commercial bamboo farming was taking place in China and southern Asia. Most species of bamboo are native to that part of the world. That means there is no difficulty in finding a type of bamboo that will perform well, and without unexpected pests or other problems.
Moso bamboo, from southern China is the variety that produces bamboo flooring and clothing. That’s where the demand is. To grow bamboo for poles and light construction, there are many more species to choose from. Guadua bamboo is the primary variety used in Latin America for poles and construction. (See our in-depth article on Bamboo varieties for construction.)
But before planting the US with great swaths of Chinese and South American bamboo, one needs to do some serious research. Non-native plants can attract exotic pests, both big and small. They might also throw the soil out of balance. And, of course, bamboo is notoriously fast spreading. These are some serious considerations to take into account before introducing bamboo into a foreign habitat on an industrial scale.
Climate conditions for bamboo
It’s true, there are types of bamboo that will grow all over North America. But in order to farm bamboo on an economically viable scale, most varieties will need a bit of heat and humidity to reach their full potential.
There are no shortage of bamboos that can withstand freezing temperatures. But such cold weather will certainly slow down the crop and reduce the overall harvest. So the practical zones for bamboo farming are pretty limited in the US. The Southwest may have some potential, but it’s a bit too dry there. And in order to farm successfully and competitively, you need all the conditions working in your favor.
The ideal region for an American bamboo farm is the deep Southeast. Once the land of King Cotton, it’s now the up-and-coming grove for Big Bamboo.
Bamboo farms in Florida
A longstanding fruit farm in Manatee County, Florida, Mixon Farms went ahead and planted about eight acres of commercial bamboo around four years ago (2016). With citrus trees struggling to cope with plagues of pest, disease and climate change, these pioneers took a stand with bamboo.
Based in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa, Mixon Fruit Farms is counting on bamboo to be a more resilient and more profitable crop than the citrus that has long dominated the local landscape. At this time, they are primarily focussing on cultivating Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) for its edible shoots, high in fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals. Once the plantation is more mature, they will probably begin harvesting the massive poles for timber and a multitude of other uses.
To the southeast, near Fort Lauderdale, OnlyMoso specializes in growing Moso bamboo for all of its many uses, from shoots, to floors to sunglasses. More importantly, they have been providing the starter plants to other farmers and growing operations, including Mixon Farms. They also have partners in China and across Europe.
Bamboo farming in Georgia
Thigpen Trail Bamboo Farm is another interesting operation in the Deep South. This family-owned farm and nursery grows about 100 varieties of bamboo, specializing in those that will not be a detriment to the local habitat.
Southern Georgia has an ideal climate for farming bamboo, but also lots of pristine natural habitat that could be disrupted by planting the wrong types of invasive species. On their website, they go into great detail about the benefits and versatility of bamboo. They are also careful to explain the risks of planting exotic species in the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem.
As a retail nursery, Thigpen sells live bamboo plants to individuals and the general public. They also sell wholesale to other nurseries across the region, and to an increasing number of small farms looking to embark on commercial cultivation.
Also take a look at our article on the Best Bamboo Nurseries in America.
In terms of sustainability, there is no resource that can match bamboo with its vigorous growth habit and unlimited versatility. But reducing carbon footprints also means sourcing materials from closer to home. And as long as all the bamboo is coming from China and the Far East, that will be a drawback.
Stateside advocates for sustainability and environmental responsibility are finally now cultivating plantations to meet America’s healthy appetite for bamboo. While farmers in places like Kentucky and in the Midwest jump on the hemp bandwagon, the Deep South is tapping into the potential of bamboo.
Until further research can prove otherwise, it appears that the area around the Gulf of Mexico is best suited for commercial bamboo farming. Only in this hot, humid, semi-tropical climate will the giant timber bamboo achieve its full size. Elsewhere, in cooler zones, the growth would be somewhat stunted, and domestic farmers could never compete with Chinese bamboo.
Even so, there are still risks and challenges with growing Asian bamboo in North America. Some species may not do so well on this continent, and others may do a little too well, driving native eco-systems into extinction. Finding the “Goldilocks” varieties that are neither too much or too little isn’t easy, but at last, it’s happening.
Thanks to trailblazers like OnlyMoso in South Florida, Americans are finally farming bamboo on a large scale. At this point, the most ambitious farms are in Florida’s citrus zone, but Georgia is also recognizing the economic promise of bamboo in the Peach State.
If all goes well, the bamboo fields may someday stretch all the way from Miami to Houston. But keep in mind, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The key is to maintain balance and diversity. The goal is to farm in a way that’s compatible and complementary with native forests and grasslands, and not to replace them all in the name of “green gold.”
PHOTO CREDIT: James Lee