By Stacey Stearns
During the growing and harvest seasons, vegetable producers often begin their day before sunrise and finish as the last light is seeping into the horizon. These long days are normal but varied. Challenges such as pests, disease, climate change, and weather make each day and each growing season unique and unpredictable.
Vegetable farmers control some of the variables they face—like weeds and the temperature and moisture levels of their soil—by using a product that comes with pros and cons: plastic mulch.
Shuresh Ghimire, assistant extension educator for vegetable crops in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR), is working with producers in the state to find alternatives to plastic mulch without eliminating the benefits it brings.
"Farmers are among the first to feel the effects of climate change. A successful crop, especially outdoors, is heavily based on climate variables like temperature and precipitation. Farmers need a solution, but we know we can do better than traditional plastic mulch," says Ghimire.
He is leading efforts to introduce more biodegradable plastic mulch for Connecticut's vegetable producers.
"The goal is to address these challenges and increase food production closer to home," says Ghimire. "This provides greater food security and lessens our dependence on traditional agricultural regions like California that are facing their own climate-related challenges."
Why is mulch necessary? Mulch reduces the need for herbicides, conserves soil moisture, moderates soil temperature, and can increase both crop yield and quality. This helps keep more profits in the growers' pockets when margins are tight.
However, there are negatives that come with plastic mulch. Most plastic mulch products are non-recyclable. Ongoing research highlights the negative environmental impacts of plastic mulch. It is also costly and labor-intensive for producers to remove at the end of the growing season.
These drawbacks have a big impact at the state and national levels. Connecticut has over 5,500 farms, including about 1,000 that produce vegetables on more than 9,000 acres. There are about 4.4 million acres used for vegetable production in the United States, roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Plastic mulch becomes an unwieldy annual problem at this scale when it goes to a landfill at the end of each growing season.Click here to see more...