Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Rural Georgia family hoping to revive state's once prosperous turpentine industry

"As the weather warms and the pine sap rises, a long-forgotten South Georgia industry edges closer to resurrection," Dan Chapman reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "A French company recently announced plans for a first-in-decades turpentine factory in Effingham County. Here in the buckle of the old Georgia pine belt, though, an old-fashioned, farm-rigged turpentine still already turns pine gum into paint thinner, violin varnish, soaps and salves. It’s owned by the Griner family, fifth-generation foresters revitalizing a profitable and painful Georgia history one sticky bucket at a time." (AJC photo by Curtis Compton: Pines being tapped for pine gum)

"From a sole customer in Brunswick five years ago, the Griners now count hundreds of online aficionados who buy small batches of turpentine and rosin," Chapman writes. "Artists use the goo to thin paint or clean brushes. Craftsmen mix turp into a fine furniture wax. It’s in Vicks VapoRub, inhalers and medicated soaps. Hunters deploy turpentine to mask their scent. Rosin, another pine sap byproduct, helps baseball players grip bats and bull riders grab reins. Violin makers apply rosin as a varnish. It’s in chewing gum, Coca-Cola and depilatory wax."

Georgia once led the nation in turpentine production, Chapman writes. "Much of the success, though, was built on the backs of African-American slaves, freemen, convicts and sharecroppers who did the hot, dirty, dangerous work of cutting the trees, gathering the tar, building the barrels and distilling the gum. By midcentury, Georgia-tapped turpentine generated $43 million annually and tallied 8,000 gum producers, according to the American Turpentine Farmers Association in Valdosta. South Georgia state legislators pushed to make Georgia the 'Turpentine State.'"

"The romance, though, soon ended," Chapman writes. "Production dropped off drastically by the mid-60s as the forests, and the men needed to cut them, dwindled. Pulpwood proved more lucrative work for turpentiners. Cheap-labor Brazil, China and Indonesia supplanted the American South as the turpentine leader. By the mid-70s, the Miss Spirits of Turpentine beauty pageant had been canceled. Today, only 4.3 million acres of longleaf pine remain in the South."

Five years ago the Griner family tapped 10 trees on their 500 acre farm and used repurposed farm equipment—old vats, pipes, funnels and sieves—to fashion a still, Chapman writes. Once the mash was taken to a factory to turn pine stumps, trees and other natural resources into additives and solvent they were in business. Wade Griner told Chapman, "We’ve gone from zero customers in a month to, this month, over 800 customers. We (tapped) 70,000 trees last year. We also bought gum from other people. As time goes by, I don’t think we’ll be able to produce as much as we need. If we can revive this industry in the U.S., we’ll all be ahead of the game. I’m not sure it will all work out or not. But we sure are a lot further ahead than when we started.” (Read more)

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