It’s been 48 years since U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin came up with the idea of Earth Day after witnessing the results of an oil spill in Santa Barbara, CA in 1969. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.
Earth Day 2018 is Sunday, April 22. This year’s campaign is all about ending plastic pollution, according to the Earth Day website. A key element of the campaign is the Earth Day Network’s online Plastics Pollution Calculator (https://www.earthday.org/plastic-calculator/), which allows consumers to calculate the amount of disposable plastic they use in a year and make plans to reduce waste.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), two million farms dot America’s rural landscape, with one farm feeding 165 people annually in the U.S. and abroad, a sharp increase from previous decades. Farmers and ranchers have been called the first environmentalists, as they drink the same water and breathe the same air as their neighbors, which is why they are committed to protecting and sustaining the environment for their families, their communities and for future generations. Protecting the land is in the economic interest of farmers and ranchers, as well as society overall.
Farms today produce more food with fewer resources than ever before. While farm and ranch productivity has increased dramatically since 1950, the use of resources (labor, seeds, feed, fertilizer, etc.) required for production has declined markedly.
With the increased use of agricultural plastics, specialized recycling enterprises have cropped up throughout the country in an effort to give a second life to many disposable farm products. Some are government-subsidized programs based at local landfills, while others seek a market-based approach, turning ag plastic into everything from grocery bags to crude oil that can be refined for fuel.
In an article by Brian Barth in Modern Farmer, he cites three of the most common disposable plastic products in the agriculture supply chain and ways that farmers eliminate the need for their use.
Ancient farmers ran water through earthen ditches to reach their crops, a practice that is still used in some countries (think the rice paddies of Southeast Asia), but in modern times irrigation without pipes and tubing is virtually unheard of. Unless, that is, you don’t irrigate at all.
Enter the concept of dry farming — a catch-all phrase for farming techniques that use only the water that falls from the sky — which is gaining momentum due to the extreme drought conditions in the western U.S.
A side benefit is that plastic irrigation supplies are irrelevant. Farmers such as David Little of The Little Organic Farm in Sonoma County, California, have mastered the craft of trapping moisture in the soil for the duration of the growing season so that irrigation is not necessary.
Covering the soil around crops with plastic accomplishes many goals at once—weeds are suppressed, the soil is warmed, fertilizer applied below the plastic does not run off in the rain, and soft fruits like strawberries are kept out of contact with the soil where rot-causing fungal spores dwell.
The old-fashioned version of plastic mulch, of course, is all-natural biodegradable mulch like straw, leaves, wood chips, and other types of organic matter. The idea behind plastic mulch is that is more efficient to install on a large scale (on large farms it is applied with special machinery) and thus more economically feasible.
However, there are many examples of financially viable modern-day farms that use organic materials rather than plastic mulches. Recently, the Rodale Institute, one of the pioneers of organic agriculture, did an in-depth study on the benefits of using mulch from cover crops. These soil-enriching crops may be grown over the winter in the same beds where a food crop is to be planted the following spring and used in place as mulch.
Some crops are planted directly in the ground by seed, but many start their life inside a tray of plastic pots in a greenhouse. Plastic pots are reusable to an extent, but most seedling trays used for vegetable production last two or three years at best before they are carted to a landfill.
However, Japanese farmers have developed a transplanting system based on inexpensive, biodegradable paper pots. Rather than removing each seedling from its pot, the paper pots are planted directly using a non-motorized device that can be pushed like a lawnmower or pulled behind a horse or tractor.
The system works on a small scale but it is economically viable for large growers as well—one person can plant 264 seedlings in less than a minute without any bending over or digging. The system was previously available only in Japan but is now being distributed by Small Farm Works in Wisconsin.