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"Organic Farming Has A Plastic Problem" NPR article

 
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I did not know that plastic was being used to this extent in conventional organic farming...what a disappointment

At One Straw, the plastic film used on just 30 productive acres in one year would stretch 36 miles in a straight line. Bigger organic operations like Lady Moon Farms, with farms in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida, spread it over thousands of acres. And when the season is over, it ends up in landfills.



Organic Farming Has A Plastic Problem. One Solution Is Controversial

The scary part of this article for me is that rather than finding solutions in different methods of farming they are looking for 'biodegradable' plastics in order to continue with the same old practices...

BASF, the agrochemical giant, has been sending representatives to NOSB meetings to argue for the use of its product, Ecovio, a popular biodegradable plastic mulch used by farmers around the world, in certified organic farming. It said a study published in 2018 shows that the product fully biodegrades.

 
pollinator
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Judith, it is shocking. I was on the central coast of California earlier this year, and the amount of plastic used in organic ag is beyond belief. Envision miles of fruit trees or grape vines draped in plastic. Acres of berry fields or lettuce covered with it. As best I can tell, what we buy at the grocery as ‘organic’ (also wrapped in plastic, by the way) is simply farmed in a conventional way, but draped in plastic instead of chemicals to keep weeds down and pests off. So, while you do gain some benefit in eating organic food in the sense you are not ingesting ‘cides’, it doesn’t do the soils many favors, and creates huge volumes of plastic waste.
 
pollinator
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Yes, very sad. I am glad someone is finally talking about it.

Abd besides the mulch, there are also miles and miles of the dripping irrigation hoses that also go in the landfill. In fact for every length of plastic mulch, there will be a corresponding length of hose, as they can’t grow anything with mulch if they don’t water it underneath.

It’s depressing, to say the least.
 
Artie Scott
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Luv, do you know if they can reuse the drip irrigation lines, or do they yank, trash and replace with each crop?  I guess I assumed the former, but I can certainly see the irrigation supply companies promoting the latter!  
 
Artie Scott
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Sorry, auto correct changed Liv to Luv. Which isn’t to say I don’t Luv Liv, who wouldn’t Luv Liv!
 
Liv Smith
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Some of them will reuse the drip lines for another year, but it’s not meant to last.
 
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We have seen this for the last couple of years in Northern Ontario.  We watched a tractor lay it out over the fields, and my husband remarked wondering whether it was re-usable or would all go to the garbage after.  I guess this highlights the difference between "permaculture" and "organic farming", where we might tend to think of organics being a part of permaculture this shows it certainly isn't, as far as the marketable label "organic" is concerned.
 
pollinator
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Worse than the plastic ending up in a landfill, here in Hawaii it has ended up  embedded and breaking down in abandoned fields. And the current nightmare is that the shredded bits of plastic are blowing into the ocean and being entangled in the reef and seabed. It's a plastic nightmare that is never going to go away. The island of Lanai has the worse situation with this. Acres upon acres of breaking down plastic film is being wind blown on thousand of acres of non-ag used land, where some of the plastic gets wind blown into the ocean. It's appalling.
 
Artie Scott
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That is very sad, Su Ba.  I looked at a property here in Virginia that was interesting, until I saw the 10 acre field covered with disintegrating black plastic sheeting and irrigation lines underneath the weeds. I couldn’t figure out how I would ever get rid of all that.
 
gardener
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There are market gardeners that follow many permaculture principles, yet they use plastic mulch extensively.
Curtis Stone, Justin Rhodes, the fit farmer,  the permaculture orchard guy,  all use plastic mulch.
They seem to favor silage plastic, and  expect many years,  or even a lifetimes worth of use.
Some have noted the huge amount of earthworms they find under their plastic as the deciding factor in their continued use.

I'm not a profit making farmer of any kind, much less a no spray/beyond organic farmer,  so I hesitate to condemn the practices of those who are.
I don't mind suggesting alternatives, even untried ones.

In my yarden, hardboard lasts for years in direct contact with soil.
It's the board that pegboard is made of, and made of compressed wood fiber, no glue.
I find the pegboard allows in water,  and suppresses most weeds.
I prefer it,  because water sheets off or pools on the hardboard without holes.
The pegboard makes for good footing as well.
I've never had weeds grow through the holes,  but if they did,  I think the flat surface would make weeding extra easy.



A potentially more durable idea, but utterly untested, is basalt fiber cloth.
Made of spun stone,  it could last a long time.
The color is naturally black,  the weave can be very tight.
A caveat, tiny bits of some  stone fibers have a history of causing health issues, but that's true of tiny bits of anything.


The problem with either of these ideas is cost.
Neither will beat the initial monetary cost of plastic, and they are untested in the long run.
Plastics long term effects look pretty grim,  but those costs are not figured into upfront financial costs.
I'm not sure about the environmental costs hardboard or basalt fabric, I just know they will return to the earth, in way that plastic will not.

Is that enough? Cellophane comes from woodfibers, and,  will eventually return to the earth,  but creating it requires  toxic carbon disulfide.
Maybe cellophane, blackened with added carbon particles would be a good plastic substitute.

I'm building 3'x3' panels from heat treated pallet boards.
I'm leaving the nails in and holding them together with staples.
My lot is not beefing friendly anyway,  and I expect most steel to corrode away before it gets loose in the soil.
Their backs will be layered with cardboard, maybe as much as an inch thick.
The point is to create a durable,presentable weed barrier/stepping stone from mostly free material.
I have grass to kill,  and the city objects to cardboard or carpet.

Slab wood from a mill,  rounds from a log,  petrified hessian (burlap) and a bunch of other ideas might work for a small time operation ,but I'm not sure if they would work for a large scale farmer.
 
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William Bronson wrote:
I'm building 3'x3' panels from heat treated pallet boards.
I'm leaving the nails in and holding them together with staples.
My lot is not beefing friendly anyway,  and I expect most steel to corrode away before it gets loose in the soil.
Their backs will be layered with cardboard, maybe as much as an inch thick.



I don't want to drag this post too far off topic, but ... this strikes me as a very clever idea.  I've got a bunch of degraded pallets, left over from the process of bringing home unsorted collections of free ones and then stacking the good/matchable ones into pallet tables for my container garden.  The odd sizes and broken pallets have accumulated, and they have too many nails to be turned into useful lumber without an awful lot of work.  But I can see that it would be much less work to cut them apart with a circular saw (carbide blade) to a standard length and staple them together into a laminated unit, with cardboard to stiffen and thicken.  

I am quite curious what kind of staples you are using, though?  So many fasteners these days have coatings or plastic finishes to prevent corrosion; I think I would want raw steel that would rust away roughly as soon as the existing nails in the pallets.  Have you found something like that?

 
William Bronson
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I'm just using the cheap harbor freight staples.
Whatever the coating, I've never had a stapled together pallet outlast the staples.
I'm no plastic purist, either, just don't want to add swaths of it to my yarden.
No telling if the idea will work, but it's cheap to try.
Thanks for the props!
 
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So when people read or hear stories like this it seems very tempting to lament all the ways "organic" isn't the rainbow permie-dust we all hoped for. Maybe someone would hear this story and think, "I guess buying organic isn't worth it... etc." which would feel like a real shame. Until there is a well regulated alternative that is "better" than USDA Organic we don't have a lot of options at the local grocery store (if you're lucky enough to have a grocery store that stocks organic produce). I do believe the main reason the majority of farmers who are certified organic are doing it for the financial premium they get for their crops.

That being said, according to the NOP, 205.206(c)(6)

(c)Weed problems may be controlled through: (6)Plastic or other synthetic mulches: Provided, That, they are removed from the field at the end of the growing or harvest season.

the plastic needs to be removed at the end of the season. Whether the farmer recycles, reuses, or chucks into the ocean this plastic is not the issue here. The issue is whether or not we're willing to pay an even greater premium for produce that is more aligned with our superior permie values. Would a more fitting yet less click-baitey title be "Organic farmers being forced to abuse plastic resources to even attempt to compete with conventional farmers"? It's a lot easier to spray sevin or whatever, but if we want carrots for <$1/lb. we shouldn't expect them to come from a hugel-polyculture.

In other words, you get what you pay for. I guarantee you could purchase certified "plastic-free organic" produce as long as you're willing to spend a lot more than what you're already paying for certified organic produce. The failings of commodity crop economics is not the fault of the NOP, more a symptom of the bigger agricultural/economic challenges we're facing. Know your enemy.

 
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William Bronson wrote:
Is that enough? Cellophane comes from woodfibers, and,  will eventually return to the earth,  but creating it requires  toxic carbon disulfide.
Maybe cellophane, blackened with added carbon particles would be a good plastic substitute.



I would think that a specialty ag paper could be developed to work long enough for the crop to win over the weeds.  It could be easily blackened with a flame bar on the production web handling equipment and it could have whatever perforation pattern, thickness, and fiber coarseness required.  Our society knows how to make paper very cheaply and many mills have shut down due to loss of demand.  It could be spread the same way they currently lay down the plastic.

 
Greg Martin
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Did some quick googling and there are already some developed paper products.
 
Greg Martin
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Just wanted to show what "plasticulture" can look like... :(
 
pollinator
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We found that when the family farm switched from conventional to organic plastic usage went from 0 to lots (technical term yes about a mile of single use permeable plastic each year) diesel usage also went up by around 5-10x as mechanical weeders have to be run every couple of weeks rather than a spray being put down once a year.

However I wouldn't say Organic farming specifically has a plastic problem, conventional also uses it and just as much in many cases, what all farming has is a income problem. Take single use "bed plastic" this is used here to grow lettuces, it's black so enables earlier crops making more money, (we don't get hot enough for black to be an issue) it stops dirt getting on the lettuces so they do not need washing, which saves money, increases shelf life and decreases the risk of contamination, and it stops weeds again saving money. any one of those three would pay back the price of it but all three together means you cannot compete without it. My lettuces which are direct in the soil are 2 weeks behind the farms that were planted the same time through plastic. Now we get enough rain that drip tape is not required under the plastic but someone did ask if it's single use, technically it can be reused but it's a real pest to manage and large places tend to throw it out every year as it costs more in labour to sort it than it does to buy new.

However it doesn't HAVE to be done in plastic

it's in Danish but the video speaks for itself, is the largest iceberg lettuce grower in Denmark showing how they grow their organic lettuces with mechanical weeding open hearted lettuces are more of a problem as the soil gets inside and they would need washing in this setup.
 
Judith Browning
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Here's a couple links to more in depth information...the first a pdf explaining the usda's stand on 'biodegradable' plastic mulches and the other is an article about 'One Straw Farm' (that was mentioned in the NPR article in the first post).

Allowed Mulches on Organic Farmsand the Future of Biodegradable Mulch

One Farm's Battle for Biodegradable Mulch

Despite plastic being allowed, for the Normans, that mulch compromised the integrity of the farming they otherwise did with great dedication to environmental stewardship. They were sending four dumpsters of plastic mulch, equal to 45 miles of it, to the landfill each year.

 
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