The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a $1.5 million grant to help UI researchers establish guidelines for increasing environmental, social and economic sustainability in ornamental crop production systems.
Lead researcher Ryan Stewart, a UI professor of crop sciences, said a major concern of greenhouses, nurseries and other ornamental crop production systems is waste generation because of the use of plastic pots.
"Unfortunately, the main source of material to make these pots is petroleum," he said. "Biocontainers appear to be an excellent sustainable alternative to petroleum pots. Also, growers love the idea of marking up the retail price of a plant by having it available on the shelf in a garden center."
Biocontainers utilize plant-based fibers, plant or animal proteins and recycled byproducts. Examples include containers made out of sterilized cow manure, wood pulp, coconut coir, rice straw, peat moss, rice hull and proprietary bioplastics developed by horticultural companies.
Stewart is collaborating with researchers at seven other U.S. universities on the project. Their first task is to generate a life-cycle analysis for each biocontainer, he said.
"We're going to measure all the energy inputs and outputs related to their processing, production and distribution," he said.
The biocontainers then will be evaluated in greenhouses and containerized nurseries to see how they fare in automated planting and filling stations. After plants are inserted in them, researchers also will evaluate how the biocontainers are affected by overhead irrigation.
"In a conventional production system, plants and the containers that hold them experience a lot of stress," he said. "These biocontainers, particularly in a nursery setting, need to be tough to withstand the mechanical damage they'll be subjected to. We've done some preliminary work and it appears that some of the biocontainers might not make the cut. However, many appear to be very promising."
After studying the pots and the plants grown in them in the greenhouses and nurseries, researchers will evaluate how the plants perform after being transplanted into the landscape. Can these plants grow normally in a biocontainer? How do they degrade in the landscape?
"A huge issue surrounding these pots is whether they can be planted directly into the ground without impairing plant growth," he said. "If these pots allow the root to grow down through the container, that's a win-win situation for all."
In the end, it will come down to the numbers. Economists collaborating on the project will study the data generated and evaluate the economics and sustainability of these biocontainers to form recommendations.
"We want to help industry leaders make critical decisions on the use of sustainable practices related to container choice and irrigation management based on solid data and research," Stewart said. "There is great interest in producing ornamental crops more sustainably. If a biocontainer made of cow manure or other biodegradable materials can survive in an automated production system, growers will be able to sell both the plant and the pot."
NIFA awarded more than $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which was established by the 2008 Farm Bill to support the specialty crop industry by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops.
The collaborating researchers: Guihong Bi, Mississippi State University; Robin Brumfield, Rutgers University; Michael Evans, University of Arkansas; Tom Fernandez, Michigan State University; Robert Geneve and Rebecca Schnelle, University of Kentucky; David Kovacic, UI; Genhua Niu, Texas A&M University; and Sven Verlinden, West Virginia University.