Texas fiber processor again pushes back startup date for decortication factory

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The startup of the Panda High Plains Hemp Gin, the oft-delayed Texas hemp decortication factory, has again been pushed back, according to a press statement issued this week.

Panda Biotech, Wichita Falls, said the facility is now expected to open in the first quarter of 2024. Blake Carter, Panda’s CEO, had said in October that the facility would begin processing hemp by the end of 2023.

Delay after delay

After Panda announced a plan to create the “Largest Industrial Hemp Processing Facility for Fiber and Cellulose in the United States” in 2019, the project has repeatedly gone off schedule. The company announced a first setback in late 2020 when it said it would not meet its target startup date in January 2021. In August 2022, Panda said it would not meet a subsequent target date of October that year.

Panda has been the beneficiary of support from economic development and municipal agencies in the form of loans, bond issues and tax breaks for the factory, which has a price tag of more than $100 million.

“Currently, all equipment is individually being brought online to be officially placed in service,” Executive Vice President Scott Evans said in Panda’s most recent press release. The company said construction at the site, a former Delphi automotive factory purchased for $5.8 million, is complete and the official commissioning process for technology in the facility is ongoing.

Multiple outputs planned

Panda has estimated processing capacity of the equipment currently being installed will be 10 tons of hemp per hour. The factory is designed to produce textile-grade fiber, hurd, short-fiber hurd mix, and a “nutrient-rich co-product that will be pelletized.”

Panda is “actively signing contracts with producers to grow the hemp feedstock for the 2024 growing season, as well as purchasing hemp fiber that has already been harvested or processed,” and is offering farmers “pay-to-grow” incentives including free cultivation seed, according to the press release.

Texas farmers harvested just 1,000 acres of hemp in 2021 – all of that from non-fiber plantings for cannabinoid production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS). The state did not report any hemp acres at all in 2022, the NASS report showed. That raises the fundamental question as to where the large-scale facility will source raw materials.

Long time coming

Timeline of the High Plains Hemp Gin:

  • December 2019 – Panda Biotech announces it will create the “Largest Industrial Hemp Processing Facility for Fiber and Cellulose in the United States” in Texas.
  • July 2020 – Plans to set up a factory in Shallowater, Texas are abandoned for a site in Wichita Falls. Panda says the Shallowater building did not pass inspection.
  • July 2020 – Wichita Falls City Council approves an agreement with Panda through which the Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation will put in $2.8 million to develop a hemp processing operation.
  • September 2020 – Panda announces it will purchase and equip a former Delphi automotive factory in Wichita Falls for a total investment of $110 million, with plans to go online in early 2021.
  • September 2020 – Wichita County Commissioners approve the company for a 70-percent tax abatement. 
  • December 2020 – Panda announces it is moving equipment into the Wichita Falls facility.
  • January 2021 – Delay is announced for the startup of the decortication facility after an original announcement that the factory would go online in the beginning of 2021.
  • March 2021 – The company announces finalization of purchase of the former Dephi automotive factory.
  • June 2021 – Panda withdraws application for $100 million state bond issue, planned for purchasing and equipping Wichita Falls factory.
  • August 2022 – Panda announces that the opening of the company’s factory will be delayed from October 2022, marking the second such setback.
  • December 2022 – Wichita Falls’ Economic Development Corporation approves an extension on the $2.8 million incentive package Panda received from the city in July 2020.
  • March 2023 – Equity partnership deal with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund is announced.
  • August 2023 – Panda applies to the Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation for a three-year extension on its promise to hire 50 workers.
  • October 2023 – Panda says factory is expected to begin operations by the end of the year.
  • November 2023 – The Wichita Falls City Council approves $200,000 in funding for a railroad spur to the Panda factory, raising the cost of that project to $500,000.
  • December 2023 – The company pushes back the expected startup of the facility to Q1 2024

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