The Origin of Plastic in Agriculture
While plastic itself has origins dating back to the 19th century, ag plastics only rose to prominence in the 1940s when E.M. Emmert, a horticulturist at the University of Kentucky, discovered that plastic film could be used to protect crops and produce higher yields at harvest time. At first, agricultural plastic was mostly used as a durable, cost-effective replacement for glass in greenhouse and tunnel siding. This application made it possible to develop new greenhouse designs and more efficient high and low tunnels to capture more solar radiation while protecting crops from the elements. Farm plastic is still being used for greenhouses today, along with several other innovative applications.
How are Ag Plastics Used Today?
Farm plastic is used in virtually every part of the agricultural cycle, from seed to harvest. Some of the applications are obvious while others are surprising — but they all work together to make an agricultural system more efficient and prosperous than ever before.
Greenhouses and High Tunnels
Using plastic for greenhouses and high tunnels offers all sorts of benefits for crops and plants. Agricultural plastic can transfer more nourishing solar radiation to plants as they begin to grow, protect them from pests and the elements and maintain the perfect temperature to encourage growth at different stages in their maturity cycles. Keeping plants safe from extreme temperature fluctuations can also extend the growing season and even accommodate year-round growth. Multiwall polycarbonate sheet is ideal for greenhouses thanks to its exceptional thermal insulation and strength.
Plastic mulch refers to a thin layer of plastic film that covers rows of crops in order to insulate their roots and prevent weeds as the crops begin to grow. It also limits the amount of water that evaporates from the soil, which is extremely helpful in dry regions or areas experiencing drought.
Farm plastic is resistant to rust and other forms of corrosion, so it works well for plastic reservoirs and irrigation systems to manage water flow and supply in both large and small agricultural operations. It's also a strong material that can help avoid leaks that could waste precious water and impact crop growth.
Rather than wood that can rot and splinter, ag plastics can be used to create lightweight crates for crop collection, or for displaying crops at farmers markets. They can also be used for netting to guard against hail and create shade when needed.
Crops aren't the only aspect of agriculture that farm plastic is good for. Plastic film can be wrapped tightly around grains and straw used to feed farm animals, keeping them safe and fresh throughout the winter. Their airtight seal and resistance to the elements will prevent the food from going bad for years to come.
5 Common Ag Plastics
- Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate Copolymer (EVA): A thin film commonly used for high and low tunnel coverings.
- Polyethylene (PE): Affordable and flexible plastic film used for plastic mulch.
- Polycarbonate (PC): Often used for greenhouse glazing applications.
- Polypropylene (PP): A water-resistant material commonly used for bulk bags to store and transport crops and other materials.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Ideal for tubing in irrigation and other hydroponic systems.