One of the biggest challenges small farmers face is weed management. Farmers in America often turn to herbicides such as Glyphosate (better known by its trade name Roundup). There is a growing demand among consumers for produce grown without spray or simply “no spray.” I know firsthand; this is the most common question I received as a produce vendor at Clark County Farmers markets.
The choice to move away from conventional farm practices can seem scary to some farmers. Technological advances in biodegradable plastic technology is making that step easier. The practice of farming with plastic is expanding. The term has been dubbed “plasticulture,” and is simply defined as “the practice of using plastic materials in agricultural applications.”
One of the best ways to eliminate weeds without spraying chemicals is the use of mulch. Traditionally, gardeners have mulched using straw, woodchips, leaves or other organic materials. These materials are expensive to apply and change the soil composition and pH levels. Additionally, these methods are not 100 percent effective. An alternative to traditional mulches is a thin plastic mulch applied over the soil.
In the spring, after the field is prepped, farmers get ready for planting. Implements behind the tractor mound soil into raised beds. Next, high efficiency drip tape is buried several inches under the soil. Finally, a thin sheet of plastic is placed over the beds. Soil covers the edges of the plastic to hold it to the ground and prevent wind from taking the plastic away. Seeds and plants are sowed directly into the plastic at regular intervals.
Farmers can take advantage of different color plastic sheeting to influence soil temperature. Black plastic will absorb heat and increase soil temperature to aid in germination. White plastic will reflect heat to help keep soil cooler, which will aid the growing of cooler season crops in the summer.
Fertilizing crops is more efficient and less wasteful when using plasticulture. The practice is called fertigation: water-soluble fertilizers are injected into the water supply and subsequently applied directly to the plants’ root systems via drip irrigation. This allows farmers to apply a calculated amount of fertilizer to the plants, reducing run off into local rivers.
When the harvest is finished, farmers have several options: they can let the plastic biodegrade in the field, or they can remove the plastic and let the plastic biodegrade in the landfill. Organic farms are required to remove the plastic from the fields every year. Conventional farmers have the choice of removing the plastic or letting it biodegrade.
I would be unable to farm without the use of plastics. It has increased production and decreased the labor/maintenance required in the field.
Erik Halvorson is a local entrepreneur. He owns and operates Halvorson Farms out of Yacolt, Wash. He can be reached at erikhalvorson.com.