Bear with me; here’s the problem. Plastic mulch — those shiny sheets spread across row upon row of veggies, strawberries and other crops — enables farmers to produce more types and greater quantities of food. It makes farming more profitable, preserves soil moisture, reduces weeds and saves on labor costs. But this type of mulch lasts for only a single growing season. After that, it gets dumped in landfills or is torched in the field — right here in the Willamette Valley and as far away as China.
Mark Ingman and a team of fellow Oregon State students are looking for alternatives to plastic mulch. At a national competition for sustainable technologies sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they impressed the judges enough to walk away with a promise of a $90,000 grant to develop a cost-effective, biodegradable option made out of flax straw and low-grade wool.
They are now exploring a collaboration with a Canadian company, Naturally Advanced Technologies Inc., which is conducting flax trials in the Willamette Valley in cooperation with Oregon State scientists.
Other students engaged in the project are Kara DiFrancesco, Alison Doniger, Tucker Selko, Dustin DeGeorge, Courtney Holley, Isaiah Miller, Michelle Andersen, Randi Ponce, Veronica Nelson and Caity Clark. Faculty advisers are Mary Santelmann in Oregon State’s Water Resources Graduate program, Hsiou-Lien Chen and Brigitte Cluver in Design and Human Environment, and James Cassidy in Crop and Soil Science.