Leonard Opel concluded 22 years ago that the time would come when trees would be in short supply and other resources would be utilized for building materials.
So this Lebanon, OR, farmer came up with the idea of using straw and resins to make environmentally friendly, durable particleboard. Opel wanted to use straw as the main component because he has an ample supply of it from the 1,400 acres of ryegrass that he grows for seed.
"I wanted to utilize an agricultural byproduct," says Opel. "We get a straw crop every year, but you have to wait 50 years for a tree to grow before it can be harvested."
Ag fibers are used for building materials around the world because in many countries they are more readily available than wood. A handful of U.S. companies are using wheat straw to make particleboard.
Working with longtime friend, Dale Rose, Opel developed the product and manufacturing process. Using recycled materials and a new plywood press, Opel set up a small shop on his farm to make 4 x 8' sheets of strawboard.
Opel first grinds 50- to 60-lb bales of straw into 1-3" lengths.
"The longer pieces make the strawboard stronger than particleboard and give it a more attractive finish."
Next, resin is added, and the mixture is spread into a 4 x 8' form. Opel and an assistant level the mixture and cover it with a metal sheet. The layers are then put into a plywood press that uses hydraulic pressure and 300 degrees heat to harden the sheets.
Opel says it takes 250 lbs of straw and about 2 lbs of resin to make nine sheets. He can make up to 18 sheets of strawboard per day. Each sheet weighs about 27 lbs and sells for $20.
He sells the sheets to building contractors - they're the mainstay of his business. But he also crafts a variety of other strawboard products, including coasters, bulletin boards, wine racks, ceiling tiles, paneling, cabinet doors and display cases.
Demand is strong, Opel says. He gets inquiries from all over the world, though most of his business comes from California, Idaho and Washington.
"The market is out there, we just haven't fully tapped it yet. If we had an automated plant, I don't know if we could make enough of it."
And that may happen. Opel hopes to collaborate with a private company to build a full-scale production plant.
"That would help our grass seed industry by utilizing a product that's predominately going to waste," he says.
With grass seed being raised on more than 800 farms in Oregon, he would have ample quantities of straw to buy. In recent years, grass seed growers have struggled with how to dispose of the straw because burning is banned in most areas. Some of it's baled and exported for feed; some is chopped and blown back on the fields.