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Interview with Fred Hornaday Bambu Batu: Unveiling Myths of Bamboo

Bamboo, a remarkable plant with a rich history and incredible versatility, has emerged as a key player in sustainable industries worldwide.

Recognizing its immense importance and potential, Bambu Batu, under the visionary leadership of Fred Hornaday, has taken on the pivotal role of championing bamboo as a sustainable resource.

So, in this exclusive interview, we delve into the fascinating Bamboo world with renowned expert Fred Hornaday.

From their remarkable growth rate to their versatile applications, Fred sheds light on the myriad benefits and uses of this extraordinary plant.

Join us as we uncover the wonders of bamboo and its significance in today’s world, as discussed in this enlightening interview with Fred Hornaday.

Shudeshna: Hi, this is Shudeshna Pandey from Plants Craze. You’re watching our series of an interview where we talk with gardening and planting experts. Today we have a special guest, Mr. Fred Hornaday, on our show. He is the founder of Bamboo Batu. Welcome on board, Mr. Fred Hornaday.

Mr. Fred Hornaday: Hello, thank you for having me. It’s nice to be here.

S: It’s our pleasure. So before beginning the talk, would you like to introduce yourself and your company to our viewers?

Mr. Hornaday: My name is Fred Hornaday. I have been a passionate Bamboo fan for probably 20 years or more. I had a small business in California called Bambu Batu, a little retail gift store, for about 15 years, selling, promoting, and educating people about Bamboo and Bamboo products for many years.

And then, in the last three or four years, I have been working more directly with Bamboo growers and Bamboo farmers around the world, helping them to be more successful and effective in their Bamboo farming or production.

So it has been super interesting. And my website is like an encyclopedia of Bamboo. There are hundreds of articles about all different aspects of Bamboo. I have a YouTube channel also where I have about 50 videos about all different topics related to Bamboo.

S: So, were you always interested in Bamboo from the very beginning?

Mr. Hornaday: Yeah, it goes back as far as I can remember. Before I had a Bamboo store, I had a hemp store promoting hemp products. So, industrial hemp products like paper, clothing, skin care products, backpacks, and shoes are all different uses of hemp. It is a super renewable resource that grows well without pesticides, with thousands of uses.

And then I did that for about five years. I have always enjoyed Bamboo as an ornamental plant and the Asian aesthetic of Bamboo, like decoration and things. And learning more about Bamboo, I realized it was another amazing plant, very similar to hemp.

The types of benefits it has, its usefulness, the speed at which it grows, and the way it grows without the need for lots of pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers. So then, I opened this Bamboo store. And it was a lot of fun.

The more I learned about Bamboo, the more I appreciated it. It’s just an amazing product. So, there’s not a specific point in my life where I discovered Bamboo, but it was a gradual appreciation.

bambu batu home page
Bambu Batu: Cultivating Bamboo Resources since 2006

S: The name itself, Bambu Batu, is unique, right? The spelling of Bamboo is also quite different from what we write traditionally. So how about you explain to us a little bit about how the name Bamboo Batu came up?

Mr. Hornaday: Some people do spell it wrong; we spell it B-A-M-B-U B-A-T-U. The name Bambu Batu is actually, if I understand correctly, an Indonesian or Malaysian name for a specific species of Bamboo. And I believe it is Dendrocalamus strictest, which is a tropical Bamboo that grows widely in India and Southeast Asia.

Sometimes it’s known as Iron Bamboo and has some other common names. So it’s a little bit difficult to be 100% sure which species it is because there are lots of common names used in different localities. But it’s one of those giant timber Bamboo that’s super hard, super strong.

And in that native language, the Malaysian language, it literally translates to rock or stone Bamboo. “Batu” means stone or rock in that language. So it’s like rock-hard Bamboo. And it seemed like a good name for the foundation of a business.

It also just sounds nice and rolls off the tongue, Bamboo Batu. So that’s it.

S: It’s quite unique, then what we normally hear in the US. So moving back to the questions. There are more aspects of Bamboo than what we just think about the interior or decoration part. Rather than just being a plant, Bamboo has a lot to offer. So would you let us know about the different aspects and uses of Bamboo?

Mr. Hornaday: Yeah, the list of uses for Bamboo goes on and on. It’s just, you know, there’s no limit. The only limit is really creativity and how you can apply it.

But, any wood product or anything you can make out of wood, you can make out of Bamboo. Even though Bamboo is grass, it’s a very woody grass. And so it’s super hard. So you can use them as building materials, from building a house to making cutting boards and small household items.

It’s also a great source of biomass, which can be used to generate energy or generate electricity. Bamboo fabric and clothing are amazing. When we had our store in California, the clothing was probably the most exciting and best-selling line of products.

The Bamboo fabric is super soft and super comfortable. I think I have a Bamboo t-shirt here. It is super breathable. The Bamboo underwear, the Bamboo socks, Bamboo sheets, and it’s amazing to sleep on.

And it’s pretty surprising to most people when they first discover it because you don’t think of Bamboo as being this soft, luxurious fabric. You might think it would be more like a grand fee, especially if you’re familiar with hemp fabric, which is generally a bit more coarse and rougher.

So the hemp is really good for bags or tags or jeans or jackets or shoes or something. But the Bamboo fabric is great for soft t-shirts, towels, socks, and things like that. Bamboo has many, many other uses.

In a lot of parts of the world, Bamboo charcoal is really important because throughout Africa, for example, most people rely on charcoal for heating and cooking. And so there’s lots of deforestation, cutting down trees to make charcoal so they can burn it to stay warm and cook their food.

And it’s a bit of a tragedy that they’re cutting down so many trees just for that use. When Bamboo can be made into charcoal, Bamboo grows so much more quickly. Also, once they have a firm establishment, you can harvest them continuously.

So it’s a simple use of Bamboo, but really important for preserving forests and protecting forests from being cut down just to be burned to keep people warm. Then there’s also biochar, biochar is something really exciting.

It’s very similar to charcoal, but it’s used more as a soil amendment, as an additive to the soil, to increase fertility and increase crop yields. That’s something I’ve been working on recently. There’s Bamboo biochar.

S: There are some misconceptions about Biochar not being sustainable or not being environmentally friendly. How about you clear it out for all of us?

Mr. Hornaday: Yeah, there’s generally not a whole lot of awareness about biochar. In my circles, you know, I work with a lot of biochar projects, but outside of these circles, there’s not that much awareness about it, although there are thousands of years of use history of biochar.

But traditionally, one way to make biochar is just to cut down forests, like slash and burn agriculture. You cut down the trees and burn everything down, and then all the ash and the embers fall into the soil. And then you go back and plant in that soil, and it’s super fertile.

So this is not the type of biochar that we are endorsing or promoting. The whole purpose is to stop that kind of activity to prevent deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture. But depending on the source of the biomass you’re using to make the biochar, that makes a huge difference.

As I said, if you’re cutting down trees to make biochar, then it’s not a great solution. But in many cases or the projects that I work with, we look for two different types of biomass. It’s either waste products from agriculture, which could be, for example, with coffee farming, there are all the husks from coffee beans or cocoa farming, there are all the husks from the cocoa beans, or there could be coconut shells.

In all the different types of agricultural products, there’s going to be some waste, like the corn cobs left over from the corn. So there’s all that type of biomass, which would ordinarily just be left in the field to rot, releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, or it’s thrown into a big pile and then burned, releasing flames and smoke into the air. So making biochar an alternative to that is a great solution.

Although it’s a bit confusing, people think, well, you’re just burning it. How is that better than burning it in a pile? But to make biochar, we burn them in a closed environment, not in an open environment.

So it’s burned from the top instead of the bottom. And so the flames are going up, but it’s not billowing smoke. So the oxygen is recycled, and the exhaust is recycled into the fire.

It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly how it works, but basically, it’s a closed-controlled fire where it’s not releasing lots of emissions. So when you’re making biochar, you’re actually trapping more CO2 than you’re releasing. And so the CO2 that’s absorbed into the plants while they grow, when you make it into biochar, the CO2 is locked into a fixed, stable carbon state.

Then you bury that carbon into the soil, creating a carbon sink where you’ve sequestered CO2, and it stays in the soil for hundreds of years. It’s a very long-term carbon sequestration strategy.

So you’re not only removing carbon from the air where it’s bad, but putting it in the soil where it’s good, and it’s also super beneficial for the soil and its fertility.

It’s like a sponge, and it attracts all these different microorganisms, making the soil healthier and helping the plants grow better. So yes, biochar has many benefits that could go on and on. I hope I made that clear.

S: So, moving on with the interview, we know Bamboo can be used in different products. So Bamboo cutleries are also in trend nowadays. But many people have questions about sanitation or hygiene. I mean, the Bamboo straw, is it easy to maintain hygiene in Bamboo products, especially the cutlery?

Mr. Hornaday: Yeah, that’s a good question. The Bamboo cutlery stuff is really great. I think there’s just so much plastic filling up the landfills, ending up in the oceans.

You probably know there are islands or garbage floating out in the oceans, like multiple islands the size of Texas or France. And they’re made up of all kinds of garbage and tons of plastic straws, plastic forks, knives, and things.

So using something biodegradable like Bamboo, as far as keeping them clean and sanitary, depends on how they’re made. There’s some Bamboo cutlery that’s made to last a lot longer.

And there’s some Bamboo cutlery that’s made very inexpensively and their design is for more short-term use, I guess, disposable. I don’t like to use the word disposable because it has negative connotations. But when you talk about Bamboo cutlery being disposable, it’s very inexpensive, and it biodegrades really quickly.

You can throw it into your compost. It’ll break down in a matter of months, as opposed to these plastic utensils that will linger for centuries. They’ll break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, but they don’t actually break down all the way. They just become small pieces of plastic.

So, in general, you need to hand wash Bamboo utensils. You can’t soak them overnight in water because it’s like wood. So you have to be a little bit more careful about it, but it’s not difficult. And with reusable straws, usually, you get a little brush that you can clean the straw with, whether it’s a stainless steel straw or a Bamboo straw, or I’ve also seen glass, like hard glass straws.

But it’s good to see all these different types of materials replacing them.

S: Do you have any specific Bamboo that we can use for making cutleries?

Mr. Hornaday: Yeah, you can really use a lot of different species of Bamboo. When you look at Bamboo products and the Bamboo industry, most of the products are made from Moso Bamboo, which is the giant timber species that grows in China. It’s a really good species of Bamboo. It grows really fast and grows really big, very straight.

But there are lots of other species of Bamboo that are good. It’s just that the Chinese have been using this for a long time. The Chinese are very advanced in the production and manufacturing of Bamboo products. In China, where it’s the hotspot of Bamboo production, they use Moso, but it’s not necessary.

If you had a Bamboo factory somewhere else, you could use a different species of Bamboo and have equally good quality products.

If you’re looking to start a Bamboo plantation and make Bamboo products, you don’t need to plant Moso. There are other species that perform much better in other parts of the world.

S: I think I should give it a thought and try using the Bamboo cutlery to see how it works. But I am a bit skeptical about the sanitation and housing point of view.

Mr. Hornaday: It’s actually really easy to clean. Bamboo is also naturally antibacterial. You can wipe it down, and it’s good. It doesn’t target germs the way other materials might.

S: You have inspired so many of us and those who want to start growing Bamboo. We know that you provide consultations as well. So for somebody who would want to start a Bamboo plantation, what would be your primary advice?

Mr. Hornaday: Oh, that’s a super good question. Well, let me start by saying that it’s a lot more complicated than people think. There’s not a simple textbook on how to farm Bamboo because although Bamboo has been around for thousands of years and our ancestors have been going into the forests to harvest Bamboo, leaving most of it there while taking only a certain amount, the Bamboo still flourishes when they return the following year.

So we’ve been doing this for thousands of years, knowing that Bamboo is super renewable and useful. However, it’s only in the last 10 or 20 years that people have embraced the idea of planting Bamboo in plantations as a form of farming rather than solely relying on harvesting it from the wild or managed forests.

So intentional Bamboo farming is a relatively new concept, and it takes at least 10 years or so for the Bamboo to fully mature, become productive, and for us to say, “Okay, this worked really well.” There are very few examples where we can say, “This is how they planted their farm, and these are the steps you need to follow.”

Even if it worked well in a specific example in Indonesia, if you’re planting a Bamboo plantation in Kenya, Ghana, or Ecuador, the conditions would be different.

The soil, climate, and altitude will vary. You will likely want to plant different species, and those species will behave differently. So there’s a lot of homework that you need to do before planting Bamboo.

The most important thing is to realize that there will be trial and error, and you can’t simply go and plant a thousand acres of Bamboo. You need to start with a small pilot project, planting five or ten acres with different species, observing how they grow in your climate, and then gradually expanding to larger areas.

As you get to know better and better, which species are working out, and ultimately, you want to maintain probably a few different species. I wouldn’t recommend planting if you’re doing a large scale with hundreds of acres.

I wouldn’t plant hundreds of acres of just one species of Bamboo. I’d mix it with some other, at least a couple of different species. And if you want to get really large scale, which more and more people are interested in, planting thousands of acres of Bamboo, usually because they’re trying to get carbon credits for these projects, if you’re planting on that scale, then you really need to mix more plants with it.

They can’t just be mono-cropped thousands and thousands of acres of Bamboo, as much as I love Bamboo. Biodiversity is really a game, and if you want a successful project, you need to incorporate other native plants and species. So it can really depend on the local context.

S: That’s right. I mean, Bamboo, like any other plant, only one species might not work for you. Combining it with others would definitely help. Now that we’re almost at the end of the interview, what can we expect from you and Bambu Batu in the near future? Five years from now, what would we get to see as an audience?

Mr. Hornaday: That’s a great question. As I said, I’m working a lot with Biochar right now, helping farmers convert their Bamboo into Biochar, which, again, is a great solution in these tropical parts of the world where they can’t afford to build big factories to make these really high-end Bamboo products.

Biochar is a really good entry point. Hopefully, in the next five or ten years, in these parts of the world where they couldn’t afford to build factories, there will be more and more production, and we will be scaling up to make more use of their Bamboo.

I’d like to help more of those projects succeed in that area. Also, as I said, there are lots of these really large-scale Bamboo projects people are talking about. I’m working with a few different people who are doing these big projects, and I’d like to help them be more successful as well.

I also want to plan these projects carefully and thoroughly rather than just rushing and planting 100,000 acres of Bamboo in rows. It needs intelligent and careful planning with a mix of different cash crops and native species.

Additionally, I’m working with manufacturers and growers and bringing them together because there’s great interest in Bamboo farming and Bamboo products right now.

However, the supply chain from the farm to the factory has bottlenecks. Companies in Europe or the US that want to scale up these huge Bamboo building material construction companies, which is a great idea, can’t get enough Bamboo to meet the demand.

On the other hand, people in other parts of the world want to grow Bamboo but then don’t know where to sell it due to the disjoint supply chain.

So, I’m trying to work with both producers and growers to help streamline the supply chain. There’s a lot going on right now. It’s really an exciting time for the Bamboo industry.

S: That’s amazing and quite exciting to hear, and you know, I hope this interview is able to raise awareness about Bamboo and its versatility and sustainability to more people. We really thank you for clearing out our myths and our concerns about Bamboo and its product. Thank you, Mr. Fred, for joining us for this interview today.

Mr. Hornaday: All right, yeah, thank you. It’s been great. You have some really good questions for me. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.

S: Thank you so much. I hope our audience was able to enjoy this episode as we did, so yeah, that’s the end of the interview, Mr. Fred Hornaday.

Our enlightening conversation with Fred Hornaday of Bambu Batu has debunked common myths surrounding bamboo and shed light on its true value.

From its versatility in various industries to its strength, durability, and sustainability, Bamboo has proven to be an exceptional resource with limitless possibilities.

As we continue to embrace the wonders of Bamboo and educate others about its remarkable qualities, we pave the way for a greener, more sustainable future.

Let us be inspired by the passion and dedication of individuals like Fred Hornaday, who are leading the way in harnessing the true potential of Bamboo and making a positive impact on our planet.