Making the Most of Mulch: Strategic Systems for Small Organic Tomato Growers

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $28,394.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Indiana University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Heather Reynolds
Indiana University


  • Agronomic: clovers, rye, vetches
  • Vegetables: tomatoes


  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Education and Training: participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter

    Proposal abstract:

    We propose to test innovative combinations of cover crops (living white clover or residue of winter rye-hairy vetch) and leaf mulch to boost organic fresh-market tomato production on Indiana small farms. Organic mulches can suppress weeds while promoting soil carbon sequestration among other benefits. Mulches created from nitrogen- fixing cover crops, such as white clover and hairy vetch, are particularly attractive for nitrogen-demanding crops such as tomato. Yet reliability and convenience often turns farmers to plastic mulch, a fossil-fuel intensive product that generates substantial landfill waste, and helps retain but does not build soil nutrients or organic matter. Straw is another common mulch choice, but can contain weed seed, promote mold, and lead to crop nitrogen deficits.

    To increase their viability for small, organic farmers, cover crop mulches must be optimized for organic contexts, where herbicide is not an option for controlling either incomplete weed suppression or competition from living cover crops. Combining white clover living cover crops or rye-vetch cover crop residues with in-row leaf mulch has potential to help small organic farmers realize the full potential of cover crops. An on-farm workshop, web resources, and reports designed for farmer and researcher audiences will maximize the reach of our results.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Establish replicated mulch treatments and controls at three partner farms
    2. Collect and analyze soil, cover crop, weed, labor and crop data to assess optimal mulching strategies
    3. Share project rationale, methods and results with farmers and agricultural professionals via an on-farm workshop, extension-style technical report, IU Campus Farm webpage, Indiana Small Farms Conference poster presentation, and agronomic journal article
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.