Agriculture Department Spreads The Word About Plasticulture
The Black Belt was named for its dark, clay soils. But if Harold McLemore of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has his way, the region’s colorful title might soon refer to the acres of black plastic mulch being stretched across its horticulture farms. “What we are trying to do is get the farmers involved in plasticulture,” McLemore said. “We received a grant for $60,000 to buy equipment and supplies, and we also are training Extension agents and Natural Resources Conservation Service employees to use the equipment, so they can help other farmers.”But what exactly is plasticulture?McLemore said it’s a way of growing produce that’s been around almost two decades. It involves creating raised beds, which are then covered with wide strips of plastic. Drip irrigation lines are laid beneath the plastic, and vegetables are planted through small holes in the row cover. During the growing season, the drip irrigation lines supply the plants water and fertilizer.As a result, production is increased, weeds are virtually eliminated, and drought losses are averted. McLemore said plasticulture is so superior to traditional farming, it has become standard on most of the nation’s commercial produce operations. Alabama, however, has been slow to adopt the technology. “Alabama is way behind in plasticulture use,” McLemore said. “Florida has approximately 80,000 acres, Georgia has 25,000 acres, and Alabama just has a little over 2,000 acres in plasticulture. “Alabama is not getting its fair share of the produce money on the wholesale side,” he added. “We’ve got to get into those markets, and the way we are going to do it is with high-quality produce. That’s what plasticulture can deliver.”McLemore isn’t the only one sold on plasticulture. Lowndes County farmer Donald Carter began experimenting with the practice in junior high school. After college, he started raising produce part time to supplement his teaching salary. That’s when he heard about McLemore and a new program aimed at establishing plasticulture test farms across the Black Belt. Carter and Tuskegee University Extension Agent George Hunter signed on and soon the duo was building beds, stretching plastic and harvesting truckloads of fresh produce from Carter’s one-acre garden just south of Hayneville.”It’s increased my production,” Carter said. “I’ve been utilizing less land and getting more production.”Carter, who raises collards, okra, squash, butter beans, pole beans, tomatoes, bell peppers and cayenne peppers, said the added production has increased his income as well.”This year, I planted six, 200-foot-long rows of pole beans. Those six rows yielded 100 bushels of beans, and I sold them at the market for $20 a bushel. Without the plastic, I believe I would have gotten half or less than half of that,” Carter said.Because plasticulture equipment is expensive, McLemore’s program is ideal for small farmers. Not only do they get to use the equipment for free, but they also learn farming techniques they can then share with their neighbors.”Our goal is to train farmers, Extension agents and NRCS employees so they can pass this technology on to other farmers,” McLemore said.Now in its third year, the plasticulture program is targeted toward helping small and limited-resource farmers in 17 central Alabama counties, but McLemore said he’s worked with farmers as far north as Fayette County. “Using Montgomery as a central office, we’ve worked in approximately 30 counties in three years,” he said.In the future, McLemore hopes to expand the program throughout the state, and he’s currently working on an additional $120,000 grant to help do just that.Besides helping farmers, McLemore said plasticulture also is good for the environment. Because the mulch suppresses weeds and diseases, fewer chemicals are needed; and the drip irrigation system uses less water than overhead sprinklers.Using overhead sprinklers, it takes about 28,000 gallons of water per acre to equal one inch of rain, said McLemore. With plastic mulch, however, farmers can get the same benefit from half as much water.
For more information about the plasticulture program, farmers may contact their Extension agent, NRCS representative or McLemore at (334) 240-7269.