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Plasticulture - The Future of Farming?

By Joan Love Smith, Retired Public Affairs Specialist (September 2000)

Squash planted in black plastic on Billy Gibbon’s farm in Autauga County.
Squash planted in black plastic on Billy Gibbon’s farm in Autauga County.

How can you get two to three times more crops on less land, using half as much water when compared to traditional farming methods?  Plasticulture--that’s how!  And several row crop farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt are praising this innovative method of farming.

During the recent Annual Meeting of the Mid-South RC&D Council, members and guests were invited to tour the plasticulture operations of Odell Brown and Billy Gibbons.  These two Autauga County farmers participated in demonstration projects to determine the feasibility of planting under plastic and using drip irrigation.

Partners in these projects included the Mid-South RC&D Council which provided $4,000 in grant funds; the farmers who provided matching funds to drill wells; Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries which provided equipment and the technical assistance for the demonstration; and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service staff who also provided technical assistance.  Several years ago the Department of Agriculture and Industries purchased the equipment to assist farmers in trying this method of production.  However, this was the first time it was used in Southeast Alabama.

 RC&D Coordinator Charlie McAlpine, Autauga County Farmer Odell Brown, and NRCS District Conservationist John Harris discuss plasticulture.According to RC&D Coordinator Charlie McAlpine, this method of crop production is very labor intensive at the beginning.  You must break the ground, install the drip tape, lay the plastic, and connect the drip tape to your water source.  Two people can set up a half-acre in one day, an acre in two days.  The initial materials--plastic and drip tape cost about $750 per acre.  You can often grow three crops before replacing the plastic.  And those three crops are often three times what you could normally harvest from a conventionally farmed acre. White plastic is used during the hot months, black during the colder months.

Prior to planting, the farmer broadcasts 120 lbs. of nitrogen per acre.  The nitrogen is disked in and then piled up in the bed prior to laying the plastic.  This way you know that the fertilizer is where you need it, under the plastic where the plants are growing.  Using traditional farming practices, if you spread that nitrogen on sandy soil and have a two-inch rain, you have no idea where it went.  Weeds are another issue.  Usually the farmer sprays them shortly after planting but further treatment is often necessary to try to control nutgrass and other weeds.

Billy Gibbons is excited about this method of farming.  On the first squash crop he harvested a few weeks ago, he grossed nearly $8,500 on less than an acre of land.  On the tour of the demonstration project, participants could see that the beans he planted only two days earlier were already breaking into the three-leaf stage.

Harold McLemore of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries is guiding the farmers through their first year on plasticulture.  According to McLemore, “The three most important components of this method of farming are good seed, adequate and controlled water flow, and the right amount of fertilizer.   It is very difficult to convince a farmer than he needs to buy a can of seed that costs $80 when he has always bought a can for $8.”   McLemore believes he has shown the farmers in the field that good seed is important and produces a significant increase in yields. 

Autauga County SWCD Supervisor Gaines Smith, Farmer Billy Gibbons, and Executive Director of the State Soil and Water Conservation Committee Steve Cauthen watch Harold McLemore prepare to install plastic over beds on Gibbon’s farm.This system also uses trickle irrigation tubing underneath the plastic to insure adequate moisture for the crops.  McLemore adapted a swimming pool pump to help disperse the appropriate amount of fertilizer into the irrigation water.  The pump is located close to the water source and fertilizer is added as needed.

Odell Brown was introduced to plasticulture last year and was so impressed that he decided to do it again this season.  He says that he put part of his project into squash production because “when squash prices are high in July and August, they will be very high in September and October.”  He expects to be in the 30-35 day range from planting to picking.  When the spring and summer crops are finished, he will replace the white plastic with black plastic and plant collards and other cool season crops.

Brown, who has been using traditional farming methods on about 200 acres with no irrigation, has decided to target his energy toward the 2-3 acres he has in plasticulture.  He is confident that he will be more efficient and more productive.  Brown believes that all farmers must do their part to help conserve water and fuel.  He says that, “Once you get the crop planted and the drip irrigation going, you don’t have to worry about buying fuel to cultivate the crop.  All you have to do is sit back and watch it grow.”

Farmers participating in these demonstration projects reported that using the plastic enabled them to plant and produce crops this year in spite of Alabama's severe drought.  Without the plastic and drip irrigation, they would have been unable to produce anything at all.  In fact, they witnessed crop failures by many of the larger farmers who used conventional farming methods. 

Brown and Gibbons heartily endorse this method of farming and believe it is the way of the future.  When you can grow more crops on less land for less cost and the outcome is predictable because you don’t have to worry about the weather-- you have nothing to lose!


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