Reap What You Sow

April 7, 2011

Nonwovens face challenges but continue to grow in the agriculture market

Reap What You Sow

Nonwovens face challenges but continue to grow in the agriculture market

Weed control, crop covers, capillary mats, winter protection. There are a lot of opportunities for nonwovens within the agriculture market, where technologies ranging from spunlace to spunbond to needlepunch are finding opportunities for growth.Everyone from home gardening enthusiasts to commercial farmers is turning to nonwovens in search ofearlier harvests, higher yields, better quality, improved plant growth and protection from the elements. And, nonwovens suppliers catering to these markets are facing increasing challenges including Asian competition, demand for greener products and, of course, difficult economic conditions.

While agriculture continues to be a focus for Typar and the company continues to post year-on-year growth in the category, other markets like flood control and geotextiles have received more headlines in this business in recent years as Asian competition has challenged this business. “It has been difficult to compete against the Chinese manufacturers even though our fabrics do a better job,” said Jane Wright,sales manager at
Typar. “Still, we gain a little every year and we have been able to hold our own but it’s been difficult.”

Reemay and Typar fabrics, made by Fiberweb, are sold as row crop covers. At 0.6 ounce weights, Reemay’s light weight makes it ideal for germination while heavier Typar, at 1.25 ounces, is better for covering strawberries. “Both are a little more durable than other technologies in the agriculture field. “Additionally, both offer better uniformity and better strength-to-weight ratios so they are going to last longer. Our products typically last two seasons where a lot of the competition can only be used one year.”

This reputation for quality has been Typar’s and Reemay’s best defense against Chinese competition as many farmers will only use Fiberweb products and still others refer to all crop cover products as Reemay or Typar, similar to how some people call all tissues Kleenex.
According to Ms. Wright, nonwovens are gaining ground in agriculture applications because of their ability to add ultraviolet inhibitors and withstand the sun and ultraviolet rays. Also helping is the fact that more farmers are seeing the need for these products to protect against frost, sun and even insects. “Europe has been using them long before the U.S. but they are catching on here more and more every year. We gain a little every year.”

While it mostly relies on wovens to fuel its agriculture business, Bonar Technical Fabrics offers a 120 gsm white nonwoven to this market. Sold under the CropProtect brand, this fabric serves as rain and frost protection for straw, beets and potatoes, according toTamara Van Camp, product manager of Agro.

Freudenberg Nonwovens is also targeting the crop cover market with its polypropylene-based spunbond crop covers sold under the Lutrasil brand. These products are available in widths exceeding 20 meters and are available with reinforced edges to strengthen the crop cover layer especially at their edges when they are being unwound and laid down.

Giving Back to Earth
Meanwhile, on the environmental front, Freudenberg Nonwovens has added a completely recycled option to its line of weed blockers to target the agriculture market. The company’s Lutradur spunbond polyester nonwovens can be made of post industrial and post consumer recycled polyester materials, offering consumers 100% polyester spunbond, made from 100% recycled material, in the weed block segment.

Executives expect that offering an ecofriendly option will help grow the use of weed blockers globally as more people see the advantages of the fabrics. Demand for Lutradur ECO has been growing so steadily that Freudenberg Nonwovens restarted a spunbond line, idled during the second half of 2008, late last year in its Durham, NC facility.

"We are proud to offer Lutradur ECO, a unique green product produced through a sustainable, ecologically-sensitive process," said John McNabb, North American general manager of Freudenberg Nonwovens. "We have invested years of time and resources to commercialize this product. In most applications, Lutradur ECO performs as well as our existing Lutradur product."

Development of Lutradur ECO has evolved over the past 10 years as Freudenberg sought ways to help its construction, landscape and filtration customers achieve coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits for their use of sustainable products. Material and manufacturing engineers pushed to increase the amount of post industrial recycled (PIR) material used to produce Freudenberg's traditional Lutradur material from 15% to 90%. When the company migrated to 100% PCR, Lutradur ECO material was born.

Also selling ecofriendly products in agriculture is DS Fibers, a supplier of Ingeo fiber-based nonwovens with weed control and erosion control functions.

“Sustainability is a big issue, especially in weed-control—E.U. regulations have banned nearly all weed control chemicals and sprays so people are looking for alternatives,” said spokesman Patrick De Sadeleir. “Our nonwovens offer a perfect solution.”

DS Fibers’ nonwovens are colored brown and block the light to keep weeds from growing. As the plants grow, they gradually take over the light blocking function. “ After performing their function, our nonwovens do not need to be removed and disposed of,” Mr. De Sadeleir explained. “They are 100% compostable and will gradually decompose into the soil, leaving no traces. It comes from nature and goes back to nature.”

Mr. De Saedelier added that nonwovens are ideal for agricultural applications because they have a “natural” aspect, unlike plastics or films.

Typar’s Ms. Wright said she is also seeing a need for greener products in the market and parent company Fiberweb has been supplying ecofriendly nonwovens to its customers in the agriculture market; however, with Typar, using recycled materials is difficult to achieve and still maintain its snowy white look.Still, the company tries to use 20% recycled materials.

Meanwhile, Canadian Texel uses a copper-based technology in some of its agro-centric products, which at first glance, might not seem so green, but executives assert that these products limit the use of earth damaging herbicides, said business unit manager Jean Girard.

Needlepunch nonwovens specialist Texel focuses more on the nursery business where it provides weed and root control products for commercial nurseries. The company makes a needlepunched nonwoven with a value added chemical component called Spin Out, made from copper hydroxide. Texel adjusts the concentration of the copper to meet the needs of the product. On the low end side of concentation, SpinOut is applied to the upper portions of the plant to prevent it from becoming wind blown.As you increase the concentration of copper, the root control function increases, lessening the need for herbicides in the nursery and pots. “The goal is to prevent the plant being shocked when it gets transplanted. “We help confine the root within a certain area without damaging the plant,said Mr. Girard. “This forces the root to be more fibrous and makes transplants easier.”

Texel also applies the copper coating to a barrier product to keep tree roots from growing into sidewalks and to prevent tree roots from damaging golf courses as well as another product used in lakes to keep weeds at bay.

Texel is also offering needlepunch-based capillary mats for water management. These help lessen the usage of water in a nursery or in a greenhouse. “Sometimes, the savings could go as high as 60% because with a sprinkler, a lot goes out of the pots. It is better for them to be watered through the roots.

The way this works is the needlepunch is basically creating a water reservoir within the capillary mat, allowing the fibers and the mat to contain a lot of water. Mr. Girard said the same technology is applied to winter protection products. These products need to be thick enough to protect against cold but at the same time be breathable and allow ice and water flow off.”

For now, these products are targeting the nursery market, which is not that strong currently, so Texel is looking at other areas like green roofing and some farming applications.

“We are helping people in the trade to develop green walls or roofs with vegetation. We are tying to develop or work with them to use needlepunch nonwovens in these applications.”

Jim Gideon, U.S. sales manager, said competition is tough in the agriculture market, but the fact that much of its products are patented helps matters. “There is always competition and it’s always a challenge to sell our product when others come in at a lower price, even though they are not of the same quality. However, our product is patented so it’s hard for our competition to do things the way we do them and this gives us a chance to sell our product more competitively.”