August 14th, 2012

Plasticulture: A Dilemma for Organic Growers

don_tnPlasticulture—farming that relies on sheets of plastic film for mulch, among other uses—has become incredibly popular right now among small and large commercial farmers. There are even special machines to form beds and lay the plastic over them. The “mulch” (it’s a sheet of plastic, a world away from organic mulches we know and love, such as straw or chopped leaves) warms and protects soil, suppresses weeds without herbicides or tillage, helps prevent some diseases and pests, and makes it easier to keep crop quality high.

BUT, it involves spreading huge sheets of plastic across your fields. This material is not recycled and has the potential for adding nasty things to the environment, whether that means trashing the oceans or releasing chemicals that go along with plastic.

A farmer I know here in North Carolina grew some amazing canary melons this year using plasticulture. Man, they tasted so good they risked being outlawed. He got excellent money for them, too, about $4 for a 3-pound melon, and worth it. Although he is very scientifically literate, he dismisses concerns about the use of plastics in farming. On crops where plasticulture gives him better yields (and the difference can be very significant on melons, strawberries, and several other crops), he uses it. Besides, he says, if small farmers don’t use these kinds of techniques, they can’t compete.

He’s not alone. Recently, in Winston-Salem, a large community food bank project changed over to a completely plasticulture approach. Extension brought in the equipment and put everything in place. The yields were improved, but lost was any sense of community, and the glorious jumble that typifies community gardens.

I’m pretty skeptical, though I do use floating row covers (I recycle them), a hoop house covered in plastic, drip irrigation with plastic drip tape, and sometimes plastic film for soil solarization. I don’t know if I’m being a Luddite or if this is yet another example of our national penchant for rushing ahead with the latest gadgets and technologies in search of bigger profits, without really considering the environmental costs.  —Don Boekelheide, Charlotte, North Carolina

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