Biodegradable Mulch: Applying Textile Science for a Positive Impact on Agriculture
New research in the WSU Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles department is proving there is a lot more to AMDT than sewing and pattern making.
Scientists in AMDT are involved in a research project to develop a biodegradable mulch which would provide an alternative to costly and environmentally detrimental plastic mulch.
The research project is incredibly comprehensive, spanning across three states and five research institutions, said Dr. Debra Inglis, associate plant pathologist and project director. Inglis is based at WSU’s Northwest Washington Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon.
“Not only does this project span different disciplines, departments, and universities, but it also spans across different research centers. The fact that we in Pullman can collaborate with the WSU Extension center in Mount Vernon is quite unique,” said Karen Leonas, chair of the AMDT department.
The textiles department is playing a significant role in the research. The Textile Research Lab is responsible for testing many of the intrinsic qualities of both fabric and plastic mulches, Leonas said. Two AMDT undergraduates, Marc LaPointe and Leanne Goldstein, are conducting the physical and mechanical testing of the mulches.
“Textiles play 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, Leonas said.
In addition to playing a crucial role in testing the composition and biodegradation of the mulch, the AMDT researchers can also take credit for bringing this innovative research project together.
“AMDT is actually responsible for the very inception of this idea,” Leonas said.
Leonas said the research project started when she ran into a long-time 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. The chair thought this research could be applied to the agricultural realm, and introduced Leonas to Carol Miles, an associate vegetable horticulturalist 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.
This research project has enormous potential to positively impact farmers, Miles said. The alternative mulch could potentially create a reduction in the waste stream of plastic mulch, most of which is currently disposed of in landfills. This in turn would potentially 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.
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 the soil-borne plant diseases, Miles said.
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.
By Kathryn R. Sullivan,
CAHNRS Marketing and News intern
Biodiesel Project with WSU Extension Puts Colville Tribes in the Green
When the canola fields bloom yellow later this spring, members of the Colville Confederated Tribes will see green in the form of biodiesel fuel grown, pressed, produced and used on their reservation.
The “Field to Fuel” project is the result of a multi-year partnership among the CCT, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at WSU, Washington State University Colville Reservation-Ferry County Extension, the Paschal Sherman Indian School and others, according to WSU Colville Reservation Extension educator Phil Linden.
“This project has brought together a wide array of partners,” Linden said. “WSU and USDA-ARS agronomists, WSU Extension, and local educators, graduate students, community developers and tribal leaders such as Tribal Energy Department Head Ernie Clark. They are all working with a common goal to create this new industry in our region. Farm-based biofuels are going to be based in rural communities, and creating a scalable working model for other communities to learn from will have far-reaching impacts.”
Formal Tribal Council President Cherie Moomaw initiated the project nearly four years ago, Linden said. “She really got the ball rolling,” he said. “She could see that the tribe had a land mass that could be used for job creation. She had started a pellet mill and farmed herself, so she could see the connection between agriculture and industry.”
The Colville Confederated Tribes has more than 1.3 million acres on their reservation, with more than 100,000 acres of it being identified as tillable, Linden said. The goal is to bring 20,000 acres into canola production to produce an annual fuel harvest of approximately 2 million gallons of biodiesel.
With the help of a $360,000 project (which Linden assisted in preparing) the CCT is receiving from the U.S. Department of Energy, the CCT Energy Department is purchasing additional biodiesel production equipment. They also plan to construct a local bulk station on the reservation to enable the biodiesel they produce to be blended into petroleum diesel.
The tribe produced enough biodiesel to fuel a school bus last fall. Linden said future possibilities are bright.
“Ideally, in the next five years, the tribe could be producing between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of biodiesel with vertical integration of those fuels into tribal vehicles,” he said. “There also will be enough for the local community to use. We’d see new farmers and more canola being grown across the reservation in all four districts. We’d also see high- and low-tech jobs throughout the ag sector through biodiesel processing and transport.”
And there’s another benefit in addition to the fuel produced and jobs created, Linden noted. “Every acre of under-utilized farmland that goes into production is an acre out of the weed cycle,” he said. “Most of the acreage that this project is looking to use is currently acting as a weed reservoir.”
Willingness to Pay: Apparel Merchandising Lends Expertise to Ag Marketing
Last year, organic food sales grew over 20 percent, said Joan Ellis, an associate Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles professor.
In response to this growing demand Ellis, in collaboration with WSU economist Vicki McCracken, economics Ph.D. student Nate Skuza, AMDT master’s student Emily Hunt, and economics undergraduate Rini Mukhopadhyay, are examining consumers’ willingness to pay for organically produced food products and functional food products in the state of Washington.
Ellis pointed out that AMDT’s merchandising option covers more than just the apparel business. “We study consumer behavior,” she said. “The largest retailers in the world are grocery stores, so consumer behavior research has applications there as well as in many other retail formats.
“The overall long-term goal of this research is to educate consumers, identify target markets and help existing organic producers and retailers better manage risk and capture higher price premiums on organic products,” she added.
Although studies of consumers’ willingness to pay are not new, Ellis said that very few studies have been conducted in the field.
“Most research that has been done on consumers’ willingness to pay using our methodology has been done in a controlled laboratory environment,” she said. “We’re taking the methodology out into the actual grocery store and talking to real consumers.”
The team received an Emerging Research Issues grant of roughly $68,000 for two years from the WSU Agricultural Research Center. Having completed two trial runs at Rosauers in Moscow, Idaho, the group is ready to examine larger audiences at five different grocery stores in Spokane in early March.
Ellis emphasized that such research is necessary as consumers continue to demand more environmentally friendly and healthy options. However, an obvious gap continues to exist between what the consumer demands and the retailers’ and producers’ ability to supply such products in a profitable manner, she said.
“We’re trying to help bridge that gap and help retailers and producers realize profitability and increase choices to the consumer of organic food and fiber products,” Ellis said.
Using the same methodology, Ellis and students in her AMT 108 and AMT 450 classes are also examining the consumer’s willingness to pay for organic cotton over regular cotton t-shirts.
“Organic cotton production has grown 152 percent since 2007 and the sale of organic fiber products such as linens and clothing in the US has grown 26 percent since 2007,” she said.
Although the team’s focus on organic apples, dairy products and functional foods will be completed this summer, Ellis said that she expects research on markets for organic products to continue.
“As long as there is a demand in the market for organic food and fiber products there is going to be unanswered questions that we are going to continue to pursue,” she said.
By Sarah Linker,
CAHNRS Marketing and News intern