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Fabric Fix:

WSU Scientists Join Forces to Develop Biodegradable Mulch for Vegetable Production

What do you get when a textiles scientist, a horticulturist and a plant pathologist join forces? A team of CAHNRS researchers is hoping the result is development of a biodegradable mulch that will help vegetable growers save money and minimize environmental impact by replacing the black plastic they currently use.

Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles undergraduates Leanne Goldstein and Marc LaPointe compare mulch samples. The pair are working in the WSU textiles lab to assess the properties of various mulches.
Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles undergraduates Leanne Goldstein and Marc LaPointe compare mulch samples. The pair are working in the WSU textiles lab to assess the properties of various mulches.

Textiles scientist Karen Leonas helped develop the project, which last year received a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative. The project is spearheaded by WSU plant pathologist Debra Inglis, and other WSU team members include horticulturists Carol Miles and Tom Walters, economist Tom Marsh, Extension sociologist Annabel Kirschner, and Extension educator Andrew Corbin. Inglis, Miles, and Walters are located at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center where the field project is taking place.

The research project is incredibly comprehensive, spanning three states and five research institutions, said Inglis. Leonas agreed and noted its interdisciplinary nature.

“Not only does this project span different disciplines, departments, and universities, but it also spans different research centers. The fact that we, in Pullman, can collaborate with the WSU Extension center in Mount Vernon is quite unique,” she said.

Leonas said the research project started when she ran into an old colleague who was studying biodegradable materials. Leonas asked the colleague to send her an abstract of his research, and then forwarded the abstract to the chair of WSU’s Department of Horticulture Rick Knowles. Knowles thought the research could be applied in the agricultural realm, and introduced Leonas to Miles, who was researching alternative mulches for weed control in vegetable production systems.

“We found there was an overlap in the research, and decided to proceed with the project,” Miles said.

The project has enormous potential to positively impact farmers – economically and environmentally, she said. The alternative mulch could potentially create a reduction in the waste stream of plastic mulch, most of which currently is disposed of in landfills. This, in turn, could eliminate the cost farmers pay to remove and dispose of the plastic mulch.

“This alternative would also benefit communities because many agricultural communities in the United States do not currently have access to agricultural plastics recycling,” Miles said.

"Not only does this project span different disciplines, departments, and universities, it also spans different research centers." ~ Karen Leonas
"Not only does this project span different disciplines, departments, and universities, it also spans different research centers." ~ Karen Leonas

Miles said there is much to be learned about how biodegradable mulch would impact the health and quality of soil. Biodegradable mulch should leave no toxic residue in the soil, and ideally would improve soil quality and decrease soil-borne plant diseases.

There is also potential to expand this research and supply alternatives to other types of plastic far beyond agriculture, Miles said.

“Only one percent of all plastics used are agricultural, and there are many other potential opportunities for this technology—plastic bags being just one example,” Miles said.

The textiles department is playing a significant role in the research, with its Textile Research Lab responsible for testing many of the intrinsic qualities of the fabric.

“Textiles science plays a big role in the evaluation of the product, and with the textiles lab, we’re well situated to contribute to this project in an important way,” Leonas said.

Tests will include how the fabric responds to different kinds of weather conditions and the biodegradation rate of the fabric, she said.

By Katherine R. Sullivan, CAHNRS Marketing and News intern