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Plastic and Organic Agriculture

Updated: Mar 18

Organic vegetables from Cetnral Texas
Vegetables grown, sans the platic.

The dirty truth about the organic vegetable industry is that it is predicated on plastic. Yes, I know the whole world is! But this—this is a different and a more distinct issue. In organic farming, vast acres of God’s green earth are dripped in thin, tight plastic to suppress weeds. Weeds are a perennial issue on all farms, but in the conventional regime, herbicides are used to ease the burden. However, in organics/natural systems, black plastic mulch is the industry standard. Typically, after the beds are prepped for planting, a bed shaper essentially models the soil into a ridge, covering it with a perfect, thin, taut plastic layer, usually with a line of drip tape beneath it. Later, holes are punched in the plastic when the transplant is planted. The idea is that the desired plant will grow out of the hole, and nothing else will. This saves countless hours of weeding, hoeing, and cultivating. But the harsh truth is that none of this plastic is recyclable, so massive amounts of plastic are sent to the landfill every single time the land is cropped.

Before I started VRDNT, I worked for a large organic farm. We had dumpsters full of plastic hauled off monthly. These weren’t the dumpsters you see behind restaurants—no, these were the REALLY big ones you see at construction sites, 40-yard roll-away dumpsters full of plastic. The worst part isn’t even all the plastic in the dumpster, but all the bits left behind, stuck in the weeds along the roads, or just shallowly buried below a clod of soil. Little bits of it were everywhere.  I had my own reckoning with black plastic mulch. 

Growing your vegetables without the use of plastic mulch defies industry standards. But who wants to eat food that contributes to landfills like this?
Growing your vegetables without the use of plastic mulch defies industry standards. But who wants to eat food that contributes to landfills like this?

When I first bought the land VRDNT is now on, the previous farmer had left many of the fields covered in plastic. It's usually easy to pull up plastic in big, intact pieces if it's in the ground for just a season, but by the time I got there, the plastic had been deteriorating in our punishing Texas sun for several seasons. There was no way to pull the plastic up intact. It took months of painstakingly working through the fields with an undercutter bar, trying to pull out the shards piece by piece. Thanks to MANY amazing volunteers, and Cardi B for keeping me going, we got the plastic up out of the fields. After that, it was clear: I would not be farming with black plastic mulch. I have had plenty of old-school veggie farmers flat out tell me farming without plastic is impossible, but my personal philosophy on problems is that most things are solvable with a little creativity and a good plan. :-)

We currently employ many tactics to keep weeds at bay, including cover cropping, stale seed bedding, mulching, flame weeding, tine rakes, hoes, and good old-fashioned hand weeding. (Head to this post to see a quick video of our flame weeder and tine rakes.) Explaining these methods and their deployment is a whole other blog post. But to the point, it is possible, and we are not using black plastic mulch! 

Flame Weeding is one technique we use to mitigate weeds - a job black plastic muclh is often used for.
Flame Weeding is one technique we use to mitigate weeds - a job black plastic muclh is often used for.

Our highest plastic use is at a very visible part in the supply chain: your CSA bag! I know, so many of you have written to me about the bags, and I totally get it. Plastic sucks. BUT—To be honest, I really don't feel like I have a better option at this step in the supply chain. I know reusable boxes and compostable bags are common solutions to the appearance of waste, but truly, from my point of view, both of those options are actually less positive; let me explain!

Wax Boxes: We swoon, it's reusable. But for how long, exactly? On average, in my experience, a typical reused CSA box lasts two months, or about 8 shares. Not outrageous. But what happens to this box when it is too beat up to be appealing or effective? Wax boxes CANNOT be recycled, so they head to the landfill. Although wax boxes could theoretically decompose eventually—modern landfills are managed in such a way that there is no oxygen available to facilitate the decomposition process. A ½ bushel box is 1.16 lbs/ 8 = .145 lbs of trash to the landfill per share. Whereas the bags we are using each week weigh less than .05 lbs of trash per share. Also, our bags are technically recyclable Plastic #4, BUT plastic recycling is mostly a humongous farce. So, I won't perpetuate it by claiming that as a reason. Read this article if you need more explanation there. 

Compostable Bags: Not only compostable bags, but pretty much any compostable plastic like cutlery, etc., are actually WAY WORSE than plastic, in my opinion. Because although they are partially made up of organic material, they still have tiny bits of plastic mixed in to help them stick together. There is now an alarming body of evidence that compostable plastics are a MAJOR SOURCE OF MICROPLASTICS. Here is a bit of reading on this subject from Science Direct, another article from Forbes, and a third from Ecologos. 

If you are using compostable plastics, please throw them in a landfill, not in a compost pile. I do not want microplastics making their way into our food system and environment. 

After thinking through my decisions, I decided that plastic bags were the least harmful choice, even though it may seem hypocritical on the surface. (BTW, they’re not a bad option in helping extend the shelf life of your VRDNT produce while in the fridge, and also work great as a small trashcan liner.) I am nothing if not pragmatic. I realize that I can't fix all the world's problems or live in an idealized version of reality in which my decisions don't create an impact. I hope that by explaining my decision-making process, you can build more trust in me, knowing that I am earnestly thinking through my choices and striving to make the most responsible decisions I can.

The very last thing I will say about plastic is that as a farmer, aside from being responsible in the context of the environment and waste reduction, I am also bound by the law of the land. In case you are not familiar with the Food Safety Modernization Act, you check it out on the FDA website here.

This law was enacted in 2011 by President Obama, and it has very strict guidance on what is and isn't food safe. If a foodborne illness is traced back to my farm and I was not in compliance, I can be held criminally liable. Section 112.116 states that all packing material must be 'Cleanable or designed for single use.' Not that I really worry about being the cause of a problem in the slightest, but still—I try to play by the rules and keep everybody safe. Especially considering many of our CSA pickup locations are unmonitored, I take solace in knowing that your vegetables are contained and will not be contaminated by their environment or degraded from improper storage conditions.

So that is my spiel and rationale for choosing the least bad option for packaging. Despite the plastic bags being a very visible part of your CSA experience, I feel like we are one of the better options for folks who want to reduce their plastic impact because of our very real reduction of plastic in the production process - a place where there is generally lots of plastic use, especially in large-scale organic farming. If zero plastic is an especially strong desire, let us know and we may be able to set something up at one of our Farmer Market pickups. 

But please, stay engaged, stay curious. Just because something is considered “green” doesn't mean it is. Greenwashing has become a humongous industry and in many cases, the emperor has no clothes.

Thanks for being here,

Farmer Becky

4 Kommentare

Mary Sexton
Mary Sexton
25. Jan.

Thanks, Becky for this article. I just started with VRDNT in January after losing my CSA a couple of years ago. I was dismayed to see my first veggie pickup in a plastic bag, as I am always trying to use less plastic in my life. This article was just the perfect thing for me to read. I was completely ignorant about the use of plastic in the growing of vegetables and am glad to see that you have worked so hard to take plastic out of your crop production. Well done - I know that can not have been easy. I appreciate being enlightened about this process. Keep up the good work! I'm going to try to convi…

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Thank you for being so intentional and sharing! I’ve seen regular cardboard used and returned but as you mentioned, it’s complicated and tradeoffs. What are your thoughts on twist ties/rubber bands? Thats another waste item I see w/ veggies (not particularly Vrdnt). Do you think it’s feasible for small and/or large farms to use compostable alternative like string?

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So much thoughtfulness and transparency with everything you do. Love this open view into some of the tradeoffs and how you've come to run VRDNT in the best most effective way you can today. Grateful to be your customer.

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03. Jan.

Eye opening! I had no idea about the black plastic use in organic farming-thanks for the information, and most importantly, talking about your efforts to eliminate it for VRDNT farm. I'm always learning something new when you post!

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