Free organic farmers from plastic pollution | WSU Insider

Scientists at Washington State University are working to introduce better, longer-lasting mulch and weed blocker for organic farmers.

Demand continues to grow for organic fruits and vegetables, which are grown without synthetic fertilizers or chemicals. But many farmers who grow organic crops, such as blueberries, strawberries, onions and broccoli, still rely on traditional plastic mulch – long strips of plastic sheeting – to block weeds, maintain a temperature. stable soil and retain moisture. All of this plastic ends up in landfill, costing farmers and the environment. Worse yet, plastic is burnt or buried in the ground.

“Organic farmers have limited options for mulch,” said Lisa DeVetter, associate professor and berry scientist at Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. She teamed up with economist Suzette Galinato, deputy director of the WSU School of Economic Sciences Impact Center, in a national research effort to support sustainable practices.

DeVetter and Galinato are part of a newly launched $ 1.3 million project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, led by North Dakota State University, in collaboration with scientists from Montana State University, Oregon State University, and the United States Department of Agriculture. Research service.

Close-up of Lisa DeVetter
Horticulturist Lisa DeVetter

“Plastic mulch must be 100% removed in certified organic production,” DeVetter said. However, even when the leaves are pulled out of the ground, they usually leave behind fragments of plastic that pollute and can adversely affect the health of the soil. Recycling these plastic sheets is difficult because of the soil and plant residue that sticks to the mulch.

Farmers already have access to biodegradable mulches in the soil, made from cellulose and a blend of polymers from plant and synthetic sources. But existing products do not meet National Organic Program requirements for organic farming. None are fully bio-based and their ingredients often come from genetically modified organisms and are made using non-organic methods.

The WSU research team is testing a new solution: biodegradable mulches made with fully organic ingredients.

“We are designing products that can give organic growers more options to reap the benefits of mulching, while reducing plastic waste. There are many cultures that could benefit from it, ”DeVetter said.

Same advantages, fewer negatives

Current biodegradable mulches are applied using a machine that deposits plastic sheets. An alternative, hydromulch, is applied as a spray with a mixture of fibers and water. The research team will test the best technologies to apply their new organic mulch and also examine its economic feasibility in strawberries, blueberries and other crops. They plan to work with organic farmers and other scientists throughout the project.

Biodegradable mulch in soil generally performs the same as standard plastic, and growers can save money by switching.

Close-up of Suzette Galinato
Suzette Galinato

“Part of our job is to assess the economic feasibility of adopting hydromulch in organic production systems, such as blueberries,” said Galinato. “The use of hydromulch in the fields has the potential to generate savings for the producer-operator, such as labor costs for the removal and disposal of the mulch. “

The new organic mulch has shown promise in trials on carrot fields in North Dakota. The research team will study its performance in blocking weeds, conserving moisture, and maintaining soil health in strawberry and blueberry fields of the Northwest as well as crops in the Midwest and High Plains.

“We will also take into account the expected benefits and costs of hydromulch and compare standard practices,” Galinato added. “It is important to assess the net profitability of alternative mulching practices, so we will provide growers with an interactive tool that will help them assess whether using hydromulch is profitable for their business. “

WSU scientists based in northwest Washington have been studying the challenge of sustainable mulch for more than 20 years.

“I am very excited to work with new materials and develop technologies that could help sustain organic and specialty cultivation in an economical way, while reducing plastic waste,” said DeVetter.

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