It was a dusty, dirty job in mid-February last year, but Steve Tiffany figures he was the only one harvesting a crop anywhere in the U.S.

Tiffany, of Council Grove, KS, hauled his chopper to Charleston, MS, to harvest kenaf, a tropical fiber crop. He made the trip alone and chopped into cotton boll buggies that his clients' employees dumped into module builders. They made 6-ton modules of the dry, chopped kenaf and placed them in rows for later transport to a nearby processing plant.

Tiffany is the only custom harvester who chops kenaf in Mississippi, and the clients, Brent and Gabriela Brasher, are the only growers. But that hasn't always been the case.

In the mid-1990s, a number of kenaf growers, processors and marketers formed Mississippi Delta Fiber Cooperative and built a processing plant in Charleston, hoping to serve a growing market for pulp for paper manufacturing. Up to 3,000 acres of kenaf were planted in the area, and several custom harvesters came in to harvest it.

But pulp prices soon softened, and kenaf production became a losing proposition. The co-op went out of business in 1997, and everyone quit growing the crop except the Brashers.

“We took over the processing plant and concentrated on growing kenaf that could be processed into products for niche markets,” Brent Brasher reports.

Their company, Kengro Corpor-ation, now is a leading manufacturer of absorbent/bioremediation products for cleaning up oil and chemical spills. Made from the kenaf plant's core, they're 100% biodegradable and more absorbent than competitive products made from other materials.

The outer fiber, once used to make paper pulp, is sold to companies that turn it into fiber mats for erosion control, plastic composite parts for cars, etc.

The inner and outer plant parts are made easier to separate through a natural process called field retting, which breaks down the cellulose binding them together. That's why kenaf is planted in spring and matures in November, but isn't harvested until the following February or March.

“We leave it out there to be exposed to drydown and breakdown,” says Brasher.

The Brashers try to match their kenaf acreage to the market demand for their products, and plant every other year, producing a two-year supply with each crop. They plan to plant 250 acres of kenaf this spring for Tiffany to harvest next winter.

For Tiffany, the alternate-year kenaf work extends a harvest season that already lasts from April to November and includes work in five states. In April, he chops ryegrass silage in Arkansas, returning to Kansas for alfalfa, triticale and wheat silage in May and June.

Usually in late June, he goes back to Mississippi and northern Louisiana to chop corn. Then he works his way northward as the corn crop matures in Arkansas, Kansas and Nebraska, finishing the season chopping sorghum silage in his home state in late September and October.

He's harvested kenaf three times over the last six years after buying his business from his former father-in-law, who had worked for the Brashers since they were part of the co-op. He uses an eight-row rotary head with all but two rows of cutting knives on the duradrum removed to achieve a 1¾-2” chop length.

The fully dried crop is lightweight, yielding only about 6 tons/acre on irrigated land and 4 tons/acre on dryland. It's not especially difficult to harvest, although the chopper often is engulfed by a cloud of dust and chaff.

“It's very easy on knives and shearbars, but you have to have very good, sharp knives; a good, clean shearbar; and close tolerance because you've got to cut that fiber,” says Tiffany.

The only problem, he adds, is a strong tendency for kenaf fiber to wrap around moving machine parts.

“You have to find a way to manage that,” he says. “In some cases, that may simply be stopping periodically and cutting the fiber that's accumulated around drive shafts, gearboxes, etc.”

To reach Tiffany, call 785-466-1178. For more on Kengro, log on to kengro.com.