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Raising Cane with Andy Royer

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hobbyist tinkerer

Joined: 16 Apr 2007
Posts: 2625
Location: Phoenix, AZ

PostPosted: Sat Feb 16, 2008 6:40 pm    Post subject: Raising Cane with Andy Royer Reply with quote

Andy Royer, the Bamboo Broker

[interview in progress]

Wow, looking back on the 2007 Colorado Rodmaker's Reunion, I have a lot of fond memories. I meet so many interesting people who are integral to our passion. I attended on many different levels, as a fisherman, a tourist, a friend and most importantly, a bamboo fly rod maker/enthusiast.

I knew about bamboo, that the Tonkin we used came from China, but I thought it had to come from only one importer... Little did I realize that the Tonkin was hand picked in the region and imported by someone in the know, outside of that one source that I knew of.

I had the great pleasure in meeting Andy Royer as he mingled with the makers at the gathering. He gave a presentation on the state of bamboo, the importing as such into America. He answered questions that were interesting and fielded great answers. He also gave the group a guided tour of the process with his film, "Trout Grass" and answered questions after the viewing.

It was at that time, I knew that I was close to the source, one man on a long journey away, that my rods come from the same source as do the others who make bamboo fly rods. The same source courses through my own shop, my own fishing rods and those that the other makers craft. Names as big as you want, unknown makers too, all use the same bamboo that Andy imports.

adam wrote:
Hi Andy, thanks for responding to this group of makers and fly anglers. We are all stoked that you do what you do and you do it well. Let me begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about how you got into the position of importing Tonkin Bamboo from China.

Andy wrote:

Thanks for inviting me to take part in this. I'm glad to know that anyone might appreciate what I'm trying to do.

I had one of the rod makers at the Colorado Cane gathering last summer tell me something like that. He said, "Hey, be careful out there," as I was about to ride off on my motorcycle. I thought it was nice to have someone I hardly knew care about my safety. "Uh, yeah man," he shouted, "'cause if you die out there we're screwed!" I could feel the love...

In 1993 I helped a friend start a company called Bamboo Hardwoods. This was an old friend of mine from Seattle and we were focused on opening a market in the US for bamboo flooring. This market seems quite popular today but 15 years ago it was in its infancy. No one we spoke to knew what the hell we were talking about when we said we were selling a flooring material made of grass; they thought we were trying to sell them some hippy version of a lashed-pole raft as a flooring product. Business was slow.

To make ends meet we subsidized our flooring business by selling bamboo poles to nurseries and garden supply outfits in the Northwest. We imported a total of four different kinds of bamboo poles from Vietnam and China. In 1995 my father asked if "a guy he knew" could meet with me and talk about bamboo poles. This guy was the rod maker Darryl Whitehead whose wife worked with my father in Seattle. I met with Darryl and he told me what he and other rod makers were after: 12' x 2" Tonkin cane poles that were clean, straight, heavy and straw-yellow in color.

Tonkin was one of the kinds of bamboo we imported so I knew that meeting the size and the species requirements would be easy. I spoke at length with our Hong Kong supplier about the specific quality specifications and he said "no problem, I will personally inspect all the poles myself and make sure that they are what you are asking for." I trusted our bamboo buyer, paid him a bunch of money and three months later got a truckload of crappy cane.

In the few months it took our supplier to get me the cane I ordered I studied the rod makers market a bit and that, plus the interest that was generated in this first shipment, lead me to believe that there was something here. I had had two dozen guys tell me, "Wow, this is crappy cane." I didn't know there were so many people around whittling this funny grass into fishing poles around the country. I figured that if there were that many people interested, I might as well see if I could get better bamboo out of China.

I still wasn't selling much bamboo flooring by 1997 and my father had died the previous year so after finding a new supplier I decided to blow my inheritance on a plane ticket and see if I could buy another truck full of poles.

That's how I got started.

adam wrote:

This is getting good, don't let me get in the way, I want to know about China. Where the people nice to you? If it were me in the story, I would be hanging out with the harvesters, finding out what they like to do, what they drink and such. Maybe tell us some of the human interest aspect as far as the harvesting and transportation of the poles?

Like I said, don't let me get in the way of a good story.

Andy wrote:
The people of China have always been great. China has obviously been through a lot but most of what we hear in the news is all about China’s government and businesses. It is the people in China that have persevered through over four-THOUSAND years of history. From my first trip in 1997 I have been welcome as family, albeit as a funny looking cousin of sorts…

The bamboo farmers and those who harvest all have interesting stories. The “farms” themselves are plots of land that used to be exclusively owned by the government and controlled by feudal landlords until the revolution of 1949. In the 1950’s the land was broken up and large plots were ceded to local villages that further doled out “ownership” rights to individual families. Today, as it has been for over 50 years, most families (in villages that own bamboo acreage) own approximately five acres of land. Families work as a collective and will “hire” a farm manager to control hundreds of acres of communal property. These managers control any planting/harvesting that take place on their farm. In the region of Aozai it just so happens that these farms grow Tonkin bamboo. Tonkin is now grown here as any numbers of commodity crops are grown across the US; as a carefully managed source of labor and income. There has always been some amount of Tonkin growing in these gently sloped mountainous regions but most of what we see now has been planted or transplanted.

Harvest time is indeed exciting since this entire geographic area is dense with Tonkin farms. Summer is the time for rain in Southern China and when the rains subside, usually in September, the first work to be done is the harvest of rice. Rice is still eaten one or two times daily by hundreds of millions of Chinese so it is easy to understand the importance of this primary grain. After the rice harvest is complete in Aozai, bamboo is up next. The roads throughout the region literally become flooded with freshly harvested bamboo poles. These mottled green poles fill the courtyards of neighborhood processing facilities as well as the minds and pocketbooks of about 35% of the population outside of the small city centers. Harvest is such a busy season that migrant workers are routinely hired on from neighboring provinces. Every October the labor market around Aozai is pressed beyond capacity; especially in the recent years when more and more of the young men have left the area in search of better paying jobs and multitude of opportunities in large cities like Guangzhou three hours to the south.

The day to day lives of most workers here are none too exciting; up early, work hard for seven days a week until harvest is done and then go back home. All meals are cooked on an open flame and most include a serving or two of rice or rice porridge. Primary meats are fish, pork or chicken and they are all fresh. I mean, as in swimming or running around soon before it is on the dinner table fresh. Most Chinese seem to believe that the best way to derive energy from food is to be sure that it is very fresh. The meat is almost always prepared and served “bone in”. The bones flavor the meat and it is a constant source of amazement to me to watch man, woman and child who can get a piece of meat into their mouth and quickly de-bone it without using their fingers, all the while carrying on a conversation. Meal-times are great fun but probably not for the faint of heart as they are usually loud affairs and all the bone/gristle are simply spat out onto the table. Tea is the drink of the day or night but we often have beer with lunch or dinner- just a small glass or two. The men often drink a foul concoction of rice wine. It is a clear liquid that burns like bad medicine and tastes worse. Definitely an acquired taste.

I don’t hang out with the harvesters much at all. When I’m in China I spend my days at the small factory or warehouse pretty far removed from the forest. I tend to work with a crew of about five women now-a-days. It used to be a mix of men and women but now it’s mostly women. And damn it if the young and cute ones have gone off to other work opportunities!

adam wrote:

Andy wrote:

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