Bradenton company plans to turn bamboo into big business in Florida

Very few people get excited when they talk about giant bamboo, but Russell Smith is one of them.

From precision farming techniques to stalks with diameters as big as telephone poles, Smith knows a lot about bamboo.

Smith, president and CEO of Bradenton-headquartered Rizome, believes he can turn bamboo into big business in Florida – if he can get enough farmers to plant the crop.

Once enough farmers get on board, Rizome plans to turn Florida bamboo into construction material by building an oriented strand board facility, which could generate $400 million in revenue per year and employ hundreds of people.

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Already a farmer in Hendry County has planted 100 acres to test how the plant grows in Florida’s sandy soil. Another farmer in Florida will plant 1,000 acres in 2022. 

The tallest of the bamboo already in the ground in Florida have reached heights of 40 feet in 12 to 14 months, according to the company.

The bamboo species Rizome has chosen to grow in Florida can reach heights of 100 feet. While bamboo could make Rizome big bucks, the plant also has benefits for the environment.

Each acre of bamboo sequesters 400 tons of carbon dioxide, which scientists have identified as a major driver of climate change.

Farmers that grow bamboo could also sell carbon credits to companies looking to offset some of their carbon footprint. That’s in addition to it reducing the need to cut down forests by providing an environmentally friendly alternative.

“All together,” Smith said, “we think it’s a miracle timber.”

Smith points to a challenging future for Florida’s citrus growers and what he considers an attractive alternative for them.

While the Sunshine State is known for its oranges, many species have been impacted by “citrus greening” caused by bacteria spread by Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive insect.

A Rizome spokeswoman said that Florida’s citrus acreage declined another 3% in 2021 to 407,347 acres, the fewest acres growing oranges in Florida since at least 1966.

Still, Shelley Rossetter, assistant director for global marketing at the Florida Department of Citrus, said the state’s signature agricultural crop provides a $6.7 billion economic impact to the State of Florida and supports 33,000 jobs.

Paul Meador, a citrus grower and member of the Florida Citrus Commission said the citrus greening problems began in the early 2000s and have made the future uncertain.

“It’s not an easy business,” he said. “But it’s not yet dire.”

He pointed to a couple of species of oranges that have been less impacted by citrus greening, while noting if you can harvest your crop, there’s still money to be made growing oranges in Florida.

It’s a business he’s been in his whole life. And his father before him. And his father’s father before that. Meador is a fourth-generation orange grower. His son also is a citrus grower, making it five generations that the Meador family has grown citrus.

But Meador is worried that may be where his family’s time in the business ends.

He’s spoken with Rizome officials before and believes they have a good product. But he said he’s hesitant to move on from a business he knows well.

“I think they’ve got a great product,” he said. “But it’s just not time for me.”

He points to other issues in the agriculture business. Growing oranges is labor-intensive and like all businesses in recent years, it’s been difficult to meet labor demands.

Costs are going up as well.

Florida’s minimum wage will in the next couple years grow to $15 an hour. And there are other farms in other countries with much lower wages, he said. 

“You’ve got the same problems,” he said about growing bamboo. “I’m hesitant to invest in labor-intensive crops.”

Smith said growing bamboo is less labor-intensive than citrus and more economically advantageous. He plans to partner with farmers across the state to eventually reach 100,000 acres of bamboo.

It would take just 16,000 acres to reach the scale needed to start competing with other wood products in the construction business.

The goal, he said, is for bamboo to become less exotic and eventually available in Home Depot and Lowe’s.

“The real story is where we will be in eight to 10 years from now,” he said.