Agricultural fabric

Fabric products offer relief from agriculture’s high production costs.

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The agriculture and horticulture industries are feeling the pain of the high cost of petroleum and raw materials, but a variety of fabric products used in many applications are alleviating costs with practical, economical solutions. Some segments of the agricultural fabrics industry are experiencing increased sales as end users see the value of long-term quality over short-term savings, energy reducing solutions, better protection of food and animal commodities and good customer service.

At Gale Pacific Ltd. in Altamonte Springs, Fla., agricultural fabric sales have increased substantially from 2009 to 2010, and are expected to continue through 2011, according to Patrick Lane, commercial sales and marketing manager. Gale Pacific produces a variety of advanced polymer textiles in multiple countries, some of which are custom one-off products for specific applications, but the majority are premade, designed-for-purpose fabrics. Its core market is the protection and enhanced growth of ornamentals, fruits and vegetables (including pest and weed control), hail protection, shade and bird netting.

The tight economy, however, is causing both the end product manufacturer and end user to closely evaluate their spending, Lane says. “One of the positive indicators is that they are looking at the value proposition of using higher quality fabrics. This is a combination of education on quality versus price through the distribution channel, and negative experiences with using economy products that result in premature replacement, adding additional labor and material cost.”

Stocking to suit

Susan Mohr, sales representative at Volm Companies Inc. in Antigo, Wis., says the agriculture and horticulture industries have not experienced dramatic growth, but business is steady. As a domestic supplier of packaging, shadecloth and other fabrics related to agricultural markets, Volm is able to promptly respond to customer needs by offering a broad range of custom products and sizes.

“The agriculture and horticulture markets are unique. Fabricators and distributors that sell into these markets are usually selling custom jobs. It is very important for the supplier to have the correct size, color and shade percentage in stock,” says Mohr. “Shade cloth, for example, is doing well because the distributors are working more closely with their greenhouse customers and keeping more product and more widths in stock.”

Mohr says Volm’s biggest competitors are overseas suppliers that can usually beat them in price, but not in service and quality. “We have learned how to work programs with our customers that allow them to place blanket orders with us for a lower price and pull the rolls over the course of a few months. This allows our customers to not tie their money up in containers,” says Mohr. “My opinion is that this is bringing some of the business back to the U.S. and away from importers.”

Protecting the bottom line

The high cost of production is driving farmers and growers to more carefully protect their agricultural commodities. For example, dairy nutritionists are advising dairy farmers to improve the quality of their feeds to strengthen the health of their livestock and, in many cases, reduce the use of antibiotics, according to Glen Knopp, president of Inland Tarp & Liner Inc. in Moses Lake, Wash. Because feed is the number one cost of production, reducing waste and increasing the efficiency and health of their operations is critical.

“The reduction in feed quality primarily starts immediately after harvest, so the emphasis becomes how to store the feed in an environment that minimizes feed degradation from molds and spoilage,” says Knopp. “Whether the feed is grain or other commodities, hay or silage, each one has its own unique storage needs that must be understood, and a protective cover becomes key in many of those cases.”

After years of educating farmers on the value of the hay tarp, some now claim that hay tarps work better than hay barns, says Knopp, but more education is needed to convince the round bale market on the value of hay covers.

Western Ag Enterprises Inc. in Tolleson, Ariz., is doing well in the areas where the market value of hay is high enough to warrant custom-designed tarps and full service, generally in the western and southwestern regions. But it, too, is keeping an eye on the round bale hay growers in the North and East. The materials in the hay tarps have additives that ensure longevity against UV degradation, explains owner Dick Carter. “Hay prices are changing, commodities are changing, and it’s just a matter of time before those round bales are going to become more pricey and farmers will want to take care of them,” Carter says.

Customers see the value in Western Ag Enterprises’ tarps with attached tie-downs, making the tarps easy to secure so they stay on in extremely high winds, and the company has a system that deflects water away from the sides of the haystack—features that set them apart from off-the-shelf brands. Full-service agreements to put the tarps on and remove, maintain and repair them also sets Western Ag Enterprises apart.

Educating customers

Shading for cattle and dairy cows is another growing market, says Carter, but it is stronger in certain regions, such as southern California and Arizona. “There’s more to selling that product because of the need for a good structure to hold it. When you go out to central California or the High Plains you will find that they don’t have shade structures at all and there’s a question of benefits and what the rate of return will be.”

Raven Industries Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., has been successful with several products in the agriculture industry and is planning for more growth. One is a silage cover made of a 10-layer fiber reinforced polyethylene film with an inner oxygen gas barrier layer that greatly minimizes spoilage and preserves the nutritional value of the feed by excluding oxygen. It is especially beneficial for dairy farmers who are conscious of maximum milk production, says Tom Stoebner, business development manager for the engineered films division. The company also introduced an impermeable fumigation row mulch and broadcast film to contain a variety of fumigants and allow improved fumigant efficacy at lower rates. The products are used in growing fruit, vegetables and nursery stock.

“We strive to develop new products for existing or new applications that are unique to the marketplace. This minimizes many of the domestic or offshore competitors that focus on commodity films,” says Stoebner. “Educating potential customers is key to new product introduction, especially when your product offers exceptional value. [Customers] need to know exactly what that consists of to help make a sound buying decision.”

Cost and energy efficient

Calhoun Super Structures Ltd., in Tara, Ont., Canada, started out as a hay tarp supplier in 1996, and is now designing fully engineered fabric structures that compete with steel frame buildings. The structures are site specific, designed for the applicable building code and able to handle that environment’s rain loads, snow loads and wind loads.

“In the past we were considered a cheap alternative to conventional steel structures,” says general manager Jeremy Calhoun. “Today we have extensive 3-D design and engineering to prove that we are a viable alternative to a steel structure because of the many benefits we offer. We can do a wider span with fabric for less cost and we can do cost-efficient, fast installation—within weeks, compared to a steel building install that can take two to three months.”

A fabric structure moves more air, allowing for better ventilation. It also allows more light to penetrate, which creates a pleasant interior environment. Calhoun says the company is seeing more business for large grain and fertilizer storage structures. Most of the growth is driven by customers who come to them with specific needs and specifications.

Southwestern Sales Co. in Rogers, Ark., is focusing on products that reduce energy and help maintain the health and comfort of the animals because it increases their production. It produces insulated barn curtains for poultry, cattle and swine buildings, which not only conserve energy, but also help maintain a more temperate climate for the animals.

“We’ve been making insulated curtains for eight or nine years, but like anything else, there weren’t that many people that were willing to pay the extra price. As fuel prices rise, people are looking to reduce costs and will pay for a high quality product that will last longer,” says Gerald Barrett, sales and marketing manager. “People are also realizing that the less stress on the animals from heat and cold, the more comfortable that animal is, the better they perform. Maintaining a comfortable environment in the confinement house is becoming a high priority.”

Last year the company started marketing an end door product made with a 10 oz. vinyl fabric. When exhaust fans are turned on, the negative pressure generated pulls the fabric up against the door and seals it to prevent air leakage. The product has been well received, according to Barrett.

Fabric pots for horticulture

Selling higher-priced quality to a jittery consumer is tough these days, but Vantage Partners of Statesville, N.C., believes the Fanntum nursery container is doing exactly that. “The horticulture market is a price-driven market. Farmers who have diversified their product line from row crops or cattle to a field grown nursery or container nursery by and large use cost as the driving factor in their supply purchases,” says Alan Fann, manager at Vantage Partners and the Fanntum’s inventor. “They’ll jump ship for a lower price, even if that means going from a high quality product to a product of lesser quality.”

Marketed as the next generation of nursery containers, the Fanntum competes against lower cost blow mold or injected mold plastic containers made from recycled milk jugs with carbon black added as a UV inhibitor. Using recycled milk jugs poses a variety of problems in the final product, says Fann.

Fanntum containers are made from both woven and nonwoven high-UV polypropylene, with the woven having nearly 200 air holes per square inch. These holes allow air to pass through the container, keeping the soil mix 25 degrees cooler in summer than a solid plastic container. The root system is “air root pruned” by the fabric sidewalls, which creates a dense, more fibrous root system, giving the plant an almost 100 percent live rate in the landscape once planted.

The fabric container uses one tenth the amount of oil in its construction as opposed to a plastic container, says Fann, and allows for a longer saleable shelf life.

“It hasn’t been hard to educate end users on the benefits of the fabric-sided container,” he says. “You always have one progressive grower in an area that tries the newest technique and products, trying to produce a better plant faster and cheaper, and he’s willing to share his findings with other nurseries.”

More changes are occurring in industry practices and attitudes, says Fann. The company sells more higher-density, higher-weight woven and nonwoven fabrics to new and different markets, ranging from farming, grading, erosion control and even dredging operations.

“We’re seeing the next generation of farmers and nurserymen using better land management practices,” he says. [They’re] trying to be good stewards of the land, trying to stop runoff and erosion of stream banks and ponds, just trying to be better nurserymen and farmers.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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