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James McCormick

Raising cane farms raises bamboo, sorghum and hope

By BETH GORCZYCA RYAN bryan@statejournal.com

NEW HAVEN — James McCormick grows more than crops on his Raising Cane Farms Ministry in Mason County. Through equal portions of praise, patience and teaching, he grows farmers.

McCormick, a retired service-injured veteran of the Iraq War, purchased his farm several years ago and started McCormick's Enterprises LLC in 2006. In 2011, he created its nonprofit arm, which works with veterans, particularly those recovering from wartime injuries, to teach them how to farm and perhaps help them to establish their own farms.

"I've been working with veterans ever since I came home from Iraq in April 2005," he said. "What went into Raising Cane Farms is watching for six or seven years what veterans needed."

Using his military pension and a $5,000 grant from a veterans farmers group in California, McCormick started his outreach ministry, which serves as an education center and employment place for veterans to raise bamboo for landscaping, soil stabilization and flooring. Bamboo and sorghum both can be used as a food source, also. 

McCormick's work earned him the Citizen Before Self award earlier this year from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The award was presented to McCormick and nine other people in March at Arlington National Cemetery.

"It was a good event, and I got to meet a lot of good people," he said. "I enjoyed meeting like-minded people who are working for the betterment of others."

So why did he start raising bamboo and sorghum?

"Because I have a small operation I needed to find something that was unique, something that didn't require a lot of space and something that grows fast," he said.

As it turns out, bamboo and sorghum met that requirement.

"When you plant bamboo you can see growth literally within one week," he said, adding, "The other thing is you can grow bamboo on less than one acre, same thing with sorghum. A 100-foot by 50-foot plot can result in 20 gallons of molasses that can be pressed out and cooked."

So what do McCormick and the other farmers who he's mentored do with the bamboo and sorghum? McCormick said the possibilities are actually endless. First, both can be used in cooking — molasses from sorghum can go into baked goods, and bamboo shoots are often used in Asian style cooking. In addition, sorghum seeds can be turned into a gluten-free snack similar to popcorn. Sorghum can be used as a biofuel, and bamboo stalks can be used in any type of construction from buildings and bridges to flooring and fencing. Bamboo even can be made into clothing.

McCormick said what he likes the most about bamboo is it's easy to take care of and it doesn't require that big of a lot.

"I hear people say, ‘Oh, you don't want to plant bamboo — it'll take over.' Well so will beans and so will grapes, if you let them."

He said a simple 2-foot-deep trench around a bamboo plot will keep the plants contained. So will a barrier built of metal or recycled plastic.

Eventually, McCormick said he would like to build a three-bedroom cabin on his farm to provide housing for a homeless veteran or a veteran with a family. The veteran would live in the cabin for free, work with McCormick on the farm for a year or two, then be able to go out and start his or her own farm raising similar products using the stipend McCormick pays.

If enough people started raising bamboo and sorghum, McCormick said, spin-off businesses could be established taking bamboo to its next level such as flooring and clothing. 

"We need a fiber mill locally," he said. "It wouldn't take long if I had five to 10 farmers. They could make a living, we could save trees and it creates jobs. We have a product that is green. We just need to take it to the next step."

In a perfect world, not only would he like to help other farmers start growing bamboo and sorghum, he'd also like to talk coal companies into using bamboo as part of their reclamation projects. Thanks to their good root system, bamboo plants can help to prevent flooding and erosion and clean up pollutants that might otherwise go from a road or parking lot into a creek or other waterway.

"It's also 35 percent more effective than trees in cleaning the air," he said. And at $30 per plant, "it's a lot cheaper than $40,000 hydroseeding."

He said in his core he believes there is a great market in West Virginia and the United States for bamboo, and he hopes to help train the future farmers to supply that market.

"All of this truly is about paying it forward," McCormick said. "You just have to use your energy and find something that pulls your forward. The farm concept is just a way to help veterans. Everything we get is given back."