NOSC 2012, September 30 "“ October 3

Scholars to Present Research about Bamboo Farming and Marketing

By Kirsten J. Barnes, Center for Community-Based Partnerships

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Dr. Marcy L. Koontz, associate professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, joined by a host of student and community partner assistants, will present “Bamboo as Catalyst for Creative, Educational, and Economic Engagement Opportunities” at NOSC 2012.

Koontz and colleagues Jamie Cicatiello, Hunter Rayfield and Roger Lewis have been at the forefront of bamboo-related research since 2010, using community-engaged scholarship principles.

"I have been involved with the bamboo initiative since it started in Alabama in the spring of 2010," said Koontz, who has worked at UA for 15 years. She believes by using a plant reproductive technique developed by Jackie Heinricher, a professor and researcher at Washington State University, bamboo can become a cash crop in Alabama.

Koontz said she enjoys the community-engaged form of scholarship, because it allows her to introduce her research into her surroundings and to be actively engaged in her community.

"I was seeking in my profession, and in all aspects of my life, a reawakening of that community aspect of my life that I had when I was growing up," said Koontz, adding that she found that familiar sense of community in Northport.

Each year the United States imports millions of dollars worth of bamboo for blinds, flooring and other wood furniture. However, it is not grown locally.

"The unique thing about bamboo is that it only flowers every 60 to 100 years," Koontz said. "It may only flower one time in a person's lifetime." This makes the availability of seeds rare and expensive for the crop to be an option for Alabama farmers.

However, Heinricher has been able to take one plant and produce up to 2,000 tissue cultures, which will develop into their own bamboo plants, making it more economical for the plant to be grown in economically disadvantaged areas like Alabama's Black Belt.

In 2010 Heinricher came to Alabama to talk to farmers about the possibility and to see if they felt it would be a good fit for their farms.

"I came out of that experience with an idea that if Alabama was going to become a leader in bamboo agroforestry, we needed to start with education," Koontz said. Thus she began introducing the concept to farmers, students, academicians and others.

"If they became engaged with bamboo in some way, it could drive this initiative and make it acceptable," she said.

To do this, Koontz came up with an idea to build a learning park made with bamboo. The Friends of Historic Northport had just been given 200 acres within the city limits, said Koontz. She asked the board to set aside five acres for the park, and in November 2010 the award was made. However, the April 27, 2011, tornado delayed the progress.

"We got the land cleared and then the tornado happened," Koontz said. "Our focus shifted to recovery and helping, but after that we regrouped and we are going full speed now. In the next couple of weeks we will be tilling the soil."

In the meantime, Koontz and her colleagues have been going to schools, events and meetings to talk about bamboo and engaging students who are making various things from bamboo, including paper and charcoal.

"One of the good things about working with a project like bamboo is you can be really creative," Koontz said. "We had a bamboo game show at Boys State. We involved them in the learning process."

Once the park is open students will be able to do interactive activities, see how the plant is grown, and use an application that works on cellular phones or tablets that tells visitors about various stations located inside the park as they walk through.

Koontz's NOSC presentation will be in the form of a poster symposium and involve more than a dozen community partners and students. The presentation is entitled "Bamboo as Catalyst for Creative, Educational, and Economic Engagement Opportunities."