- Vegetables: cucurbits, tomatoes
- Crop Production: cover crops
- Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
- Pest Management: mulching - plastic
- Production Systems: general crop production
Many organic vegetable farmers in our area rely on plastic mulch for weed control, moisture retention, and soil warmth. At the end of the year it must be pulled and thrown out, which adds trash to landfills, takes a lot of time, and delays cover cropping. Biodegradable mulches are available, but since they are 3-4 times as expensive and not widely used, few farmers are willing to take the risk of trying them out. Thus, we may be missing out on a good technique that might be more sustainable than current methods, as well as more cost-effective when all factors (including labor) are taken into account. I propose that we experiment with biodegradable mulch on our farm and with two other area farms (one 70 miles to our north and one 90 miles to our south) to see if it can perform as well as plastic mulch. Using SARE money to buy the plastic and help us keep good records & compare results, we could then make informed decisions about when and where biodegradable mulch might be substituted for plastic in future years. We may also help biodegradable mulch become more widely available and less expensive by helping increase the demand for it. The main way we learn about new techniques is through informal conversation with other area growers at farmers' markets and social occasions. Many of our friends and neighbors will be very interested in our results. I will also submit our results to our Virginia Association of Biological Farmers (VABF) newsletter and propose that we offer our study as a workshop at the annual conference. We'd also include our write-up on our web site and make it available to other web sites, such as New Farm. We also all host farm tours & field trips and would talk about our demonstration then. I propose that we each use one row of biodegradable mulch in each of our successive squash and tomato plantings, with the remaining rows on plastic as usual. We'll plant two identical rows next to each other, meaning the same varieties in the same order, in order to have the best comparison. We'll keep track of any differences in how long it takes to lay the row and remove it again, and at least once a week we'll record and compare the harvests from each row. We'll also note any differences we notice in plant vigor, either through visual differences or resistance to pests or disease, as well as any difference in the performance of the drip tape we all use under the mulch. I also propose that each farm experiment with the biodegradable mulch for other crops beyond squash & tomatoes as we each see fit on our own farms. In this way I hope we can demonstrate that crops on biodegradable mulch can be as productive as those on plastic, either by producing similar yields or by having any reduction in yield cancelled out by reduced labor costs and landfill fees involved with plastic mulch removal.