Just Shoot Me

By MM Pack   

Edible bamboo? You mean those bite-sized, colorless rectangles that come in cans? Well…yes and no. David Cater, of Utility Research Garden, is on a mission to change our experience of edible bamboo, and in rural Brazoria County on the Texas Gulf Coast, he’s established one of the very few edible bamboo farms in the United States.

For millennia, bamboo has been completely integrated into the cultures of Asia and the Pacific. Celebrated in creation myths and folktales, it’s used for everything from musical instruments to lightweight, waterproof building material. But only recently have Westerners embraced the idea that bamboo has far more to offer than a fast-growing, sculptural element to landscape gardening.

“Americans are just now getting excited about bamboo,” Cater says. Consumers have begun to appreciate its versatile properties and potential uses as a more sustainable alternative to hardwood for flooring, fences and furniture, as well as for resilient, bacteria-resistant cutting boards and kitchen implements. However, it probably hasn’t penetrated most people’s awareness that bamboo is a delicately flavored and nutritious food, highly valued in other parts of the world.

Bamboo, a member of the grass family, is one of the world’s fastest-growing plants, with some varieties growing as much as a foot a day, according to the American Bamboo Society. To propagate, the parent bamboo plant sends out underground rhizome roots that then send new vertical stalks, known as culms, above the soil.

Bamboos are divided into two groups: running and clumping. Running varieties send out long horizontal rhizomes whose culms can emerge long distances from the parent plant. Clumping bamboos have short root structures that expand outward only a few inches per year, forming dense, discrete clumps of stalks. When a rhizome first forms the tender new culm growth, this is the bamboo shoot.

The edible bamboo cultivated by Utility Research Garden is a clumping variety with large, dark-green leaves; the scientific name is Bambusa edulis, known as “green bamboo” in English. Taiwan, South China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam each produce edible bamboos. “All these culinary cultures seem to like different varieties, different flavors,” Cater says. “We’re growing one of the sweetest.”

Fresh bamboo shoots are crisp and tender, with a unique mild flavor that’s been compared to corn, jicama and pear. According to research from Washington State University, they’re low in fat and calories and a good source of fiber and potassium. Shoots can weigh up to a pound, and must be peeled and blanched before eating.

A longtime landscape gardener in Austin, Cater comes by his horticultural skills naturally. While growing up in Houston, he spent summers working with his grandfather on the family farm, raising corn, peanuts and cattle on 1,000 acres in Waller County. Cater relocated to Austin in his 20s because, he says, “at the time, [Austin] had a different kind of feel—people were engaged in the community in a different way.”

In 1992, Cater launched the Earth Company landscaping business with the goal of designing landscapes with nobler purpose than mere lawn decoration. Cater sought to create natural beauty, to soften the intrusive aspects of building construction, and to generally support the well-being and health of the land. He met Utility Research Garden business partner, LeAnn Billups, when he landscaped her property in 1995. “David’s ad was the best design in the Yellow Pages,” Billups recalls.

Eventually, Cater felt the need to move on. “There was this constant barrage of destruction for construction. I just didn’t want to continue to participate.” His epiphany occurred in 2000 when vacationing in Costa Rica during the Y2K transition. “I found myself sitting under 100-foot-tall clumps of bamboo and I started thinking.”

Cater connected with Dr. Darwin Nelson, professor of environmental psychology at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. Nelson grows bamboo and has participated in several regional projects that use bamboo for contaminated land reclamation and soil retention. He became a mentor for Cater, who worked with him, digging, potting and selling 40-50 bamboo varieties. “Darwin helped me form the idea of harvesting edible bamboo shoots,” Cater remembers. Then came the nudge from Darwin to just get some land and do it.

And that’s what he did. Cater and Billups began parsing USDA soil maps looking for suitable spots. “We needed to be close to the coast with loamy alluvial soil; a place where it was warm and there was plenty of rainfall,” he says. They found a 24-acre plot near Jones Creek, Texas, that had been part of an 1830 grant deeded to Stephen F. Austin by the Mexican government. Austin’s sister grew cotton and sugarcane on the land, which remained in the family until 2003 when Utility Research Garden purchased it.

“It was a basically a hayfield,” Cater says, “with a tiny wooded area. We started working the land in 2004, and by 2005 we’d planted thousands of bamboo plants by hand.”

“Harvesting bamboo shoots wasn’t quite as easy as I first thought,” he says with a smile. A retired Taiwanese engineer who cultivates bamboo near Houston, Lee Ching Kuo, supplied green bamboo starts. “When I met Lee, I thought I knew a lot. But I learned more in 20 minutes of talking with him than I had in three years of research.” Cater asked him why younger Taiwanese-Americans aren’t also growing bamboo shoots, and Lee pointed out that, people don’t come to the U.S. from Taiwan to be laborers. As Cater has since discovered, growing bamboo is very hard physical work.

Everything in bamboo farming is done by hand. The soil must be mounded loosely around the clump’s base for frequent digging, and the shoots must be cut before they break through the ground. Bamboo grows so quickly that shoots must be harvested daily.

2008 is the first year for Utility Research Garden’s full-production harvest, which lasts from spring through fall. The goal for the season is 10,000 pounds per acre, a yield of 10-15 pounds each day per acre. The target market is Asian restaurants and families who want a few pounds a week. “I want to sell directly to the people who are going to eat them,” Cater says. “And we plan to keep the market as local as possible, with at least 90 percent of the crop reaching customers within one day of harvest.” Cater is also interested in selling at local farmer’s markets this year or next in Houston and Austin.

Oh, and what about that name, “Utility Research Garden?” “We mostly stole it from Frank Zappa’s recording studio that was called Utility Muffin Research Kitchen,” Cater says. “Food is utilitarian. Beauty is utilitarian. We’re learning, we’re researching all the time…about the land, about the bamboo. And…it’s a garden.”

Utility Research Garden, David Cater, LeAnn Billups,
utilityresearchgarden.com , 512-524-8050