According to Ron Goldy, senior extension educator at Michigan State University, plasticulture—the method of growing vegetables using raised, plastic-mulched beds with drip irrigation—can easily be adapted to small-scale growers.Upfront costs associated with plasticulture might have prevented small-scale producers from adopting this growing method in years past, but today it’s becoming a more affordable choice, even for the hobby farmer with little land.
“They will have all the benefits that come with plasticulture—earliness, increased production, higher quality [produce], weed control, moisture retention, drip irrigation, et cetera,” Goldy says. “The biggest drawback used to be the cost and size of equipment. It took a pretty sizable tractor to handle most early bed shapers, but smaller ones can now be found.”
While commercial use of plastic mulch in combination with drip tape was first introduced in the 1960s, Goldy says plasticulture is now becoming the standard for many crops due to higher, earlier yields; weed and moisture control; and reduced inputs for fertilizer and pesticides due to decreased land use. He says vegetable brokers also like it because it gives a higher-quality product with longer shelf life. (Soil often carries diseases, and the plastic reduces soil splash onto the product.) Crops commonly grown in plastic include strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and many other, mostly above-ground, crops.
To get started, growers need access to a properly sized tractor (usually a four-wheel drive for extra traction and weight), a bed shaper that will be pulled behind the tractor and a drip-tape inserter. They also need plumbing components, including filters and connections, from their water source to the drip tape. Goldy estimates a one-row bed shaper costs between $3,000 to $5,000 new, and around $2,000 used. Drip-system costs vary depending on size and water source. “Plastic is around $180 and tape around $125 per acre,” Goldy says. “Other plumbing can be done for under $1,000 for a small-scale operator. The plastic and tape is the only thing that needs to be replaced every year.”
Plasticulture farming can be particularly profitable for market gardeners, who are often stretched for both time and money, Goldy says, because after the initial investment, it’s possible to grow the same amount of produce on half the land due to high-density planting, increasing efficiency in both time and materials. One of the main benefits of growing in plastic is that it extends the growing season on both ends, meaning growers can take their crops to market sooner and extend production later in the year.
“Most market gardeners are growing for CSAs or farmers’ markets, and if the season can be extended, their income is increased,” Goldy says. “One of the drawbacks with a market garden is that not all the crops need the same amount of fertilizer or water at the same time. [With plasticulture], it is possible to valve off the sub-lines so only certain rows with similar demands are irrigated or fertilized at the same time.”
Since 2005, plasticulture has become a more affordable option for more than 300 small-scale growers in Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry’s Plasticulture Program, which helps limited-resource farmers get their produce to consumers and increase the business of farmers already growing specialty crops in the state. ODAFF assists program participants in the installation of up to 1 acre of plasticulture. “On an acre of land, we spend about $500 on material, such as drip irrigation, plastic, shut-off valves and a fertilizer injector,” says Micah Anderson, who runs the plasticulture program at ODAFF. “Then we spend about $600 for labor. The total cost is about $1,100 per acre to be ready for planting.”
The program helps install beds with its plasticulture machine, eliminating the need for the farmer to own a tractor and row-bed shaper, equipment that Goldy estimates can run up to $30,000 new or $10,000 used. The machine raises the beds, lays the plastic, and puts down the drip line all at once.
Starting out, the ODAFF plasticulture program built 25 plasticulture gardens a year, but with extra funding from the USDA Specialty Crop Grant Program in 2009, it’s now able to install more than 60 gardens per year.
“We feel this program has been great for small farmers in Oklahoma,” Anderson says. “It has created some new farmers and helped others obtain more production on a small acreage.”
For farmers who aren’t eligible for plasticulture programs or who think their acreage is too small to justify the upfront costs of implementing plastic, Goldy recommends sharing equipment and supply purchases with local small-scale farmers.