Farmers Are Finally Saying No to Plasticulture

There’s something growing on your favorite farm that you might not know about: Plastics. Every year, even small farms spend thousands of dollars on agricultural plastics, which are used for a huge variety of needs across the farm, and once they’ve outlived their function, they’re sometimes discarded around the farm or burned to avoid landfill costs or the expense of sorting them for recycling. The growing use of agricultural plastics is known as “plasticulture,” and it’s a big problem in addition to a global industry. Some farmers, however, are starting to question whether it’s such a good idea.

Some common uses of plastics include: mulch sheeting to trap moisture and keep weeds back; irrigation lines and drip tape; greenhouse sheeting; and plastic pots or seed trays used for raising seedlings before planting. For farmers, it’s pitched as a cost-cutting efficiency measure that will help them maximize profits from crops, a concern for many in an era where some crops have a very low profit margin. If plasticulture sounds like the stuff of industrial agriculture, think again. Many organic and natural farms use it as well, because there aren’t any restrictions on the use of agricultural plastics, and some argue that they have to resort to things like plastic weed barriers if they want to remain competitive with other farms.

However, attitudes about farming plastics are starting to change, at least in some corners of the farming community, an illustration of the fact that it’s possible for an industry to identify a problem and change it, even if doing so may expose them to financial risk. Fixing the plasticulture problem will create small cost increases for some farmers, but in the long term, it’s beneficial for the environment.

Plastic sheeting for mulching is one of the most challenging things to replace. Mulch keeps weeds and unwanted pests down, in addition to trapping moisture so crops don’t need to use as much water — a particularly big concern in drought-torn regions like California. In addition, mulch can prevent fertilizer runoff and promote the development of beneficial fungi that will enrich the soil, while lifting fragile plants away from the soil so they don’t rot or mold — squash and strawberries are two examples. Plastic sheeting is cheap and easy to apply, making it extremely appealing.

However, there are alternatives. One option is to use a cover crop that can be grown over the winter and simply left in place to act as mulch. Farmers can plant right over the mulch in the spring, and at the end of the year, they can leave the remains of their planting behind and reseed a cover crop, creating an endless cycle of mulch. In addition to addressing concerns about weeds and moisture retention, natural mulches also enrich the soil. As another alternative, farmers can use straw, shredded wood and other natural products to accomplish the same goal — and all of these components can be applied mechanically, just like plastic sheeting.

Equally biodegradable materials are also available for silage — animal feed used during the winter — and planting trays. Instead of using plastics, farmers can grow seedlings in planters that are lowered directly into the soil, where they naturally break down as the plant grows.

Instead of greenhouse plastics, glass and recycled durable plastic are possible alternatives. While hoop houses and other quasi-temporary structures are often made with short-lived plastic sheeting to retain warmth and moisture for fragile plants, more robust greenhouses provide a number of advantages. The initial outlay of cash needed is higher, but they last longer, and can better withstand storms, freezing conditions and other harsh weather.

Irrigation can be more challenging, as a farm cannot be practically watered without irrigation lines. Open irrigation trenches are expensive to maintain and they’re not very environmentally friendly, as evaporative loss is a concern along with water loss during the irrigation process. As an alternative, some farmers are taking an innovative approach: giving up on watering altogether. “Dry farming,” as it’s known, eliminates the need to run irrigation lines — and it also saves water in addition to yielding crops with a concentrated flavor and very high quality. While the concept is ancient, it hasn’t been in widespread use for hundreds of years, and advocates are working to change that.

Meanwhile, organizations concerned about plasticulture are addressing the fact that some farms will continue to use it by developing recycling programs that encourage farmers to bale their plastics and send them in for processing. Agricultural plastic can be repurposed for a variety of things, including products made with recycled products and even fuel production. Historically, it’s been challenging to recycle because it’s harsh on machinery and it can be contaminated with dirt, rocks and agricultural chemicals. Creating purpose-built programs to address these problems aims to get around them and create an incentive to get plastics off farms and into safe hands when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

Through a combination of awareness efforts, training and outreach, the face of plasticulture may change radically in coming years — and that’s a good thing.

Photo credit: IMCBerea College

41 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Roberto Meritoni
Roberto Meritoni3 years ago

THANKS FOR SHARING

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Anna Ballinger
Anna Ballinger3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

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Sen Heijkamp
Sayenne H3 years ago

Good! :D thank you

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Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Thanks for posting.

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Caroline B.
Caroline B3 years ago

Going back to the old ways seems tobe happening more and more often.

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Miya Eniji
Miya Eniji3 years ago

Heard of dry farming months ago on Channel Japan. it needs 2 B revived on a larger scale ! Esp. in California, Hawai'i and parts of Oz gripped by drought.

More than 20 yrs. ago, in Italy, i saw carry bags made of degradable plastic ( source: corn waste !) 20 yrs. later why don't we see more of this ??
On t. other hand, those degradable small plant pots which can be put directly in soil, are really good !

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Sylvia Walker
Sylvia Walker3 years ago

noted

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Debbie Williamson
Solitary Eagle3 years ago

Thank you.

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