By Eric Peterson | May 25, 2021
Industrial hemp products
A century-old steam plant that once powered the country's first electrified municipal trolley system became storage for government documents, including the Alabama State Constitution, before years of disuse.
As of 2019, it's back in action: The 60,000-square-foot structure now houses BastCore's proprietary hemp-processing system. The technology is the result of about five years of R&D.
"When we started the company, there was really nothing else out there -- at least domestically," says Beale. "Our technology separates the outer bast fiber from the inner core wood of the hemp stalk. We produce really clean materials. Our bast fibers are very clean, meaning there's no hurd or wood content, or very little. On the other side, our wood chips are clean and free of fiber."
The processed fiber and chips are incorporated into BastCore's catalog of four trademarked products: textile-grade Tfiber; composite-grade Cfiber; micronized Mcore wood for industrial cleanup; and chipped Ccore wood largely for building materials.
While hemp was historically used to make rope, paper, and fuel prior to its effective prohibition in 1937, the U.S. industrial hemp industry is again in its infancy. "We started the company after the Farm Bill in 2014 made hemp cultivation legal in the United States," says Beale. "I think we're still at ground zero. We're still really small by any other comparative manufacturing industry standards."
But that is set to change, he adds. "There's enormous market potential out there."
First, a domestic supply chain needs to develop, and consumer brands need to commit to industrial hemp . "What's interesting is these big brands, they're all chasing the same story: the farm-to-fabric or farm-to-garment story here domestically," says Bryant. "You hear all this reshoring and bringing everything back to America, and for the life of me, I can't understand why you ship to China and you ship to Eastern Europe when it eats into your margins and your unit economics pretty substantially when you can do it here all domestically."
"There are a lot of tailwinds pointing towards a domestic supply chain, and that's something we're excited to be a part of and proud to be a part of it," he adds. "Where we come into that is at the beginning of the supply chain."
Beale likens it to "the chicken and the egg," noting that farmers "want to work with us, but we get asked the question a lot: 'How do you know the demand is there?' On the other side of the coin, we talk to our customers, and we see all these use cases and massive amounts of demand, and they say to us, 'How do you know farmers want to grow it?' You really need to scale up the processing, which is where we come into the equation."
Most of BastCore's raw hemp is grown on farms in Kentucky, but the company also sources from in-state partners in Alabama. "Long term, we'd love to have more farming partnerships here within the state," says Beale.
Bryant is quick to point out that the CBD boom is only tangentially related, as strains of hemp grown for cannabinoid content are different and have lower yield than the strains grown for industrial uses. "BastCore contracts with farmers to grow the hemp fiber only," he explains.
While BastCore is still in startup mode, the company "is growing pretty significantly," says Beale.
Challenges: "The educational process," says Beale. "Most if not all of these companies are coming to us fairly new to industrial hemp fiber."
He says the CBD boom has complicated the pitch for industrial fiber. "After the Farm Bill was passed in '18, a lot of people equated industrial hemp to CBD, so a lot of capital flocked into that space and overlooked our area," says Beale.
Adds Bryant: "The market's finally starting to wake up. From a plant utilization standpoint, CBD is not the real opportunity, hemp fiber is."
Opportunities: Noting that there are nearly 250 million acres of corn, wheat, and soy under cultivation in the U.S., Beale says there is literally plenty of room for growth in the hemp crop. "You can run some numbers and if you just converted a small portion of that, there's a pretty big opportunity here," he notes.
While hemp textiles get most of the attention, he notes, "Non-wovens represent a lot of different products" -- such as car mats and hand wipes.
"I really believe we have a unique opportunity with the spinners and mills who have been spinning what for the past couple of hundred years: cotton," says Bryant. "I already know . . . that my material spins very well and you can spin out some pretty nice garments with it."
Needs: BastCore closed on a $2.8 million Series A financing round in April 2021, which will be used to invest in processing capacity and employees. Bryant says the company also needs "strategics on the supply side and good, long-term customer contracts and commitments."