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Mobtown Beat

Mulch Ado

One Straw Farm tries to cut back on plastic waste and may lose its organic certification in the process

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A, Created: 2010:09:02 19:11:31

Michelle Gienow

By growing cabbages using Biotelo, a biodegradable cornstarch-based ground covering which is not federally approved for organic farming, Drew Norman's One Straw Farm risks losing its organic certification.

Joan Norman’s office bookshelves are lined with titles like Barnyard in Your Backyard and Weed ‘Em and Reap. Other shelves are dedicated to binders full of records: seed invoices, nutrient management plans, field maps. Norman co-owns One Straw Farm with her husband Drew; at 175 acres, it is the largest organic vegetable farm in Maryland. She pulls down a particularly thick binder and opens it. Inside is the carefully annotated chronicle of an ongoing battle: One Straw, which has been certified organic for nearly a quarter century, is currently fighting to keep its certification.

At issue is a synthetic, biodegradable mulch with the brand name BioTelo. The thin, cornstarch-based material resembles black plastic, and like other mulches, serves to keep down weeds, warm the ground, and conserve water. The farmer stretches the material over a raised row, punches small holes in it, and inserts the plants. Over the course of the season, the material slowly biodegrades. For decades, the Normans—like many large-scale organic farmers—used plastic mulch instead. The USDA permits organic farms to use plastic, along with other synthetic mulches, provided they are removed from the field at the end of the growing season.

“We were throwing away four-plus dumpsters of plastic a year,” Joan Norman says. The couple decided to start using BioTelo in 2009, even though they knew it could threaten their certification. Synthetic biodegradable mulch hasn’t been approved by the USDA for use on organic farms. (Technically, organic farmers can use it if they remove it at the end of the season, but since it biodegrades, that can be near impossible.) “We knew it could be a problem,” Norman says, “but at some point you have to move forward and say, if this is better for the environment, we need to make that choice.”

Commercial farmers have been using plastic mulch since the 1950s, and looking for an alternative for almost as long. The labor and disposal costs of pulling up the plastic at the end of the season can range from $25 to $100 per acre, according to one study. And every year hundreds of thousands of acres of plastic mulch end up in landfills. (Dirty plastic is difficult to recycle.)

While biodegradable synthetic mulches have been around for some time, until recently none were as efficient as plastic: either they biodegraded too quickly or not quickly enough, and, more importantly, they were not durable enough to withstand the machines used to lay them down, often resulting in rips. BioTelo, which is made of a material called Mater-Bi—manufactured by the Italian company Novamont—is the most widely available of the new biodegradable mulches. A recent Cornell University study comparing Mater-Bi mulch to plastic concluded they were equally effective. “It warmed the ground up and conserved water and nutrients,” says Betsy Leonard, who co-authored the study. “It did all these things and you don’t have to pick it up.”

Mater-Bi (and, by extension, BioTelo) has been designated biodegradable and compostable by numerous certifying organizations, and is approved for use on European and Canadian organic farms. In fact, because of an “equivalency agreement” between American and Canadian regulatory agencies, Canadian organic farmers who use BioTelo can sell their products in the United States and call them “organic,” though the material is prohibited for their American counterparts. It’s the sort of bureaucratic logic that makes Joan Norman’s blood boil. “As far as I know, the only people who can’t use [BioTelo] are American organic farmers,” she says. “I’m being held at a disadvantage.”

The Normans received their first notice of noncompliance in April, after revealing to a Maryland Department of Agriculture inspector that they were using BioTelo. (The department is the farm’s certifying agency, ensuring that it adheres to federal standards.) The letter said that the Normans were violating the section of federal code that says plastic or other synthetic mulches must be removed at the end of the growing season. The Normans countered with a letter pointing out that another section of the code states: “Weed problems may be controlled through . . . [m]ulching with fully biodegradable materials.” The agency then sent the Normans a notice of proposed suspension, on the grounds that it considers BioTelo a plastic mulch.

The couple then appealed their case to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) appeals staff. Soo Kim, a spokesperson for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the NOP, would not comment on the case because it is still under review. But she gave a different rationale for considering BioTelo against the rules than the Maryland Department of Agriculture had. By e-mail, she wrote: “Regardless of Biotelo’s [sic] categorization as biodegradable or plastic, the fact that it’s synthetic makes it noncompliant with the regulations if it remains on the farm after growing/harvest.” Because the mulch has synthetic components, Kim says, each individual component must appear on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. And in order for that to happen, Novamont—or someone else intimately familiar with how BioTelo is made—would have to petition the National Organic Standards Board. Novamont is reportedly “in discussions” with the USDA, but has yet to file a petition.

Novamont did not respond to questions by press time, but according to Éric Ménard, the business development manager for Dubois Agrinovation—the North American distributor for BioTelo—there are likely a number of factors in the delay. “Since it’s not manufactured in the U.S., it takes quite a bit of time to petition,” he says. “And Novamont is a research company. The only money they make is by making a patented recipe . . . They don’t want to reveal that to anybody.” Petitioners can ask to have their claims treated as “confidential business information,” but it is up to the USDA whether or not to honor the request.

The NOP appeals process does not allow for new materials to be added to the National List, which doesn’t bode well for the Normans. But Joan Norman says they’ll keep arguing their case for a while longer, if only to bring attention to what they consider an omission on the part of the USDA. “I think it needs to happen and somebody needed to go first,” she says. “Obviously when they wrote the law they never knew that BioTelo was going to exist.”

But if it comes down to giving up certification or giving up BioTelo, the Normans are sticking with the mulch. Most of One Straw’s business comes from its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, wherein some 1,900 members pay a chunk of money in the spring for shares of whatever the farm produces that season. (Disclosure: This writer is a member.) “My CSA customers are who needs to be happy and trust us,” Norman says. “And as long as I keep everything above board and tell them what I’m doing, I don’t think it’s an issue.” She says she believes local restaurants that buy from the farm—such as Woodberry Kitchen and Clementine—will remain loyal, and if the Normans are unable to sell to the one organic wholesaler they work with, it won’t affect their business greatly.

“It would be hard to give up a word after 27 years,” she says. (The farm used organic practices for three years before it was certified.) “But I think using BioTelo follows the original intent of ‘organic’ and what that word means.”

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