For the first time, tomato growers using high tunnel greenhouses in western Washington can manage one of the most serious plant diseases organically, says Washing State University plant pathologist Debra Inglis.
Insight into late blight management in organic ag is one of the many outcomes of a three-year project led by WSU. A team of 17 scientists tested five biodegradable mulches – alternatives to the traditional plastic mulch covers that suppress weeds, maintain soil temperatures, increase plant production and shorten harvest time – in open fields
Production and disposal of plastic mulch, which is used to enhance the growth of several hundred thousand acres of specialty crops in the U.S., pose environmental and financial challenges to growers who need to find ways to recycle the materials.
WSU researchers Inglis and Carol Miles led the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crops Research Initiative project.
Their leadership earned them the 2013 NIFA Partnership Award for Innovative Programs and Projects, which they accepted in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the SCRI team in November.
Team members across six institutions conducted the trials with biodegradable mulches in high tunnels in Texas and Tennessee as well as Washington.
"We found that high tunnels can produce higher tomato, lettuce and strawberry yields relative to the open fields in the three field study regions," says Inglis. "Higher crop yield can translate into increases in profitability depending on the crop's production costs and market price."
The higher temperatures, better ventilation, lower humidity and reduced leaf wetness inside the high tunnels also help combat the water mold that spreads late blight infections in tomatoes, she adds.
The team included economists, horticulturists, plant pathologists, sociologists, biological systems engineers and soils and, oddly, even, textile scientists from WSU's Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.
NIFA is now the chief agency in the U.S. funding ag research.