October 22, 2020
On to this week’s thoughts…..
Part of growing a successful crop of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and several other heat loving crops at 45 degrees north latitude is a wonderful invention called plastic mulch. Plastic mulch is a sheet of 1 mil thick (1/1000th of an inch) plastic that is laid down on the soil with the edges buried to cover the vegetable growing bed (youtube has many videos of machines applying plastic mulch for the techno-geeks among us; that includes me). The three most important advantages in our case are the increased soil temperature that allows us to grow these crops in this climate at all, weed control, and a considerable reduction in water use for irrigation which saves a considerable amount of fossil fuel. Like every other plastic product it solves a multitude of problems but leaves us with others; disposal and pollution.
Because I seem to have a dominant conservation/ practicality gene (I remember being concerned about waste, pollution and running out of resources at the age of four) we have wanted to use something better than plastic for some time now but the cost has been prohibitive at our scale because of the way the free market of food works in this country. We as farmers don’t want to degrade the environment because we live right in the middle of that environment. (at least most of us; there’s always those in any industry that think the only important criteria in business are those that can improve the bottom line; I loath them to some degree and consider them to be rather simple and shallow) But we are fully exposed to an economic system that only promotes these kinds of things in a punitive way through regulation but does absolutely nothing to help cover cost. The borders remain wide open to product from anywhere in the world that doesn’t have the same regulatory load we do. The result is that we can’t recoup our costs, we are less profitable, resilient (the new overused word that I think most Canadians have very little of) and financially stable. Therefore we are very unlikely to be proactive in implementing new measures that are environmentally friendly unless they come with a cost saving or at least break even. That’s my bit on that. There will be more in the future whether you like it or not; I promise!
Back to plastic. We have used a product called “oxydegradeable” plastic in the past. The price is somewhat more than regular plastic but you don’t have to clean it up or pay tipping fees at the dump so it was very nearly as economical as regular plastic mulch and we did it. After about five years of use, however, we discovered it did not break down as well as advertised. If it was buried in the soil it could be nearly as good as new when it came to the surface nearly five years later. Once exposed to sunlight it would completely disappear in three weeks but in the meantime it could blow around or stick in the trees and weeds; very ugly, and we didn’t gain much popularity with the neighbours. There is also another fully biodegradable product available but we have never tried it because of the cost.
The result was that this year we are back to regular plastic mulch. We just finished cleaning up the sweet potato mulch and it generated two big truckloads of dirty plastic (it seems to magically expand about 20 times over the summer) that cost more than $600 in tipping fees. There is also the labour required to remove the plastic and the fact that we will never get 100% of it; there is always a piece here and there that got torn off and buried. That made me dig my calculator out and go over the costs again. My conservative estimate is that it would cost us an additional $10,000 per year to switch to fully biodegradable plastic even with the savings in tipping fees and labour. We'd love to make the switch but frankly we are in a battle with changing economics to even stay in business and, unfortunately, have to really make sure we can afford to do this. Three years ago, before climate change started beating us up, our economic situation was much more secure and we would have gladly made the switch (the price of bio plastic has come down considerably since we last looked at it, plus we thought oxydegradeable was the answer).
Most of our society is in favour of biodegradable where possible, and rightly so. But how do we enable farmers to make the switch? Does Elmridge start a “go fund me” campaign where the amount of money we raise each year as a percentage of our $10k cost increase determines what percentage of biodegradable mulch we use instead of regular mulch?
Food for thought……..
Keep eating your veggies! (especially those from Elmridge)