"Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way."
--Edward de Bono
Sometimes we find solutions to our problems in unexpected places. My love for growing food has evolved alongside my disdain for plastic. Plastic, along with one of its primary components, oil, are at the forefront when considering our impact on the environment on which we depend. The list of problems that are exasperated, if not caused, by our dependence on oil is long. Its not exactly rocket science.
But is that really the fault of oil or plastic? I think not. The problem is with management. When cars became affordable, everyone got one, regardless of actual need. As long as gas prices stay below $3.00, there is little talk of downsizing, regardless of actual need. I suppose it is human nature on some level, but it is far from the human nature of two generations ago (or two generations from now) when conservation was (will be) necessary for survival.
I have often found myself perplexed when confronted with images and stories of organic farming operations that use a product referred to as plastic mulch. It is not exactly mulch in the wood/straw sense, although it does control weeds and conserve moisture. It is really just a sheet of black plastic that is stretched over a raised bed, then buried along the sides so that it doesn't blow away.
Besides the plastic (about 4 sq.ft./linear ft. of bed), there is the diesel fuel that transported it and was used in the 30ish HP tractor that is required to lay it. Oh, and then at the end of the season you have a huge pile of plastic that many farmers choose to burn. Sounds organic to me. And all to save the work that a team of well-trained ten year-olds can pull off in a good twelve hour day.
Growing (and eating) food in Illinois, and many other parts of the world, presents a peculiar issue with regards to oil consumption. We can only grow certain crops for a limited duration, unlike California, for example. Until recently, I didn't think there were any real benefits to be gained by using plastic to grow food, with respect to the ecosystem as a whole.
My discovery of four season growing has changed that. Plastic film is stretched over a metal structure to create a micro-climate that can be used to extend seasons. Hoop-houses, or high tunnels, are not a new idea, but with the increasing focus on fuel conservation, I think it makes sense to take advantage of this technology in our area. I also use a secondary layer of mini-hoops inside for the really cold nights (see the top picture). Operating on a purely experimental basis, we were able to grow lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, spinach, and assorted chois, throughout the winter without any supplemental heat.
On sunny days in January, with six inches of snow on the ground and daytime highs hovering in the mid-twenties, it reached a balmy 55 degrees inside. This heat is trapped by the soil and slowly released overnight, so that the ground never freezes inside.
When considering impact, the amount of fuel saved by not transporting these vegetables across the country is surely more than what it took to manufacture and transport this plastic. As of last month, I can say that I will soon have actual data to back up this assumption. We, along with eight other farmers in Union County, and many more across the country, have been pre-approved to take part in a 3 year USDA study on the benefits of using these systems for season extension, erosion control, and pesticide reduction (synthetic or organic). This program has created a variety of possibilities for farmers interested in producing food to be consumed locally.
The plastic on this year's hoop-house can be used for the mini-hoops inside next year
if it is weakened too much to be the primary protection. It can also be used on small hoops throughout the property to warm the ground and for shorter periods of season extension, though they alone generally won't hold the weight of snow.
In my mind, all of life is an experiment. Slight variations in materials and techniques can lead to wonderful realizations. Sometimes we use things that we once considered useless. The results achieved thus far have given me a whole new outlook on farming, year-round.