|George Paris (left) helped Raldeja Pruitt (center) and Ratreavius Sanders examine a large patch of collards grown at Knox Elementary School in Selma.
By Alvin Benn
"The Graduate" was a popular 1967 motion picture highlighted by a single word that became part of the American lexicon—PLASTIC!
It was uttered by a California businessman who urged a young college graduate, played by actor Dustin Hoffman, to consider a career in plastics.
Four decades later, the plastics industry is as strong as ever and it’s rapidly making inroads where many would least expect to find it—agriculture.
Plastics can now be found in the mulch industry, as irrigation tape, row crop covers, silage bags, hay bale wraps and pots used in transplant and bedding-plant production.
One reason is its protective possibilities, particularly in regions where fluctuating weather conditions can make or break a crop.
||George Paris (left) and Harold McLemore of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries stood in a collard patch they helped plant at Knox Elementary School in Selma.
According to the American Society for Plasticulture, "row covers have the potential to minimize the effect of extreme weather events on the crop and optimize plant growth and development in a protected environment."
One unlikely locale for plasticulture, as the industry is known, is a small plot of land at Knox Elementary School in Selma where third grade students literally have had a hand in growing collard greens this year.
Thanks to a $500 grant from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the children were given an opportunity to watch plastics being used to protect the collard plants and provide a covering for drip irrigation.
The catalyst for the project has been third grade teacher Carolyn Pickett who returned to the classroom after two years away to work for the state Department of Education.
During her first tenure at Knox Elementary, Pickett would look at the vacant, grassy area between the cafeteria and a classroom-wing and think about ways to better utilize it.
|Carolyn Pickett fed 4-year-old Jaylin Davis some collards grown in a field next to Knox Elementary School in Selma.
When she returned to Knox a year ago, she went from wondering to working on her idea and soon obtained help from George Paris and Harold McLemore of the state Department of Agriculture.
The two farm experts virtually adopted Knox Elementary School and came by as often as possible during the two-month growing season for the collards.
They’ve had similar requests in the past, but the one from the Selma school seemed to spark their interest more than the others and they quickly volunteered their services.
"This was one that stood out," said Paris, as he gazed over at the bright green field just a few feet from the cafeteria. "Problems with obesity and diabetes not only involve adults. Children have the same problems."
One early lesson for the collard-growing kids was the kind of insecticide to be used for the project. Only the organic variety was permitted. The only additive not organic was the commercial fertilizer.
The type of soil was a big advantage for the project and McLemore pointed to the ideal mix, including sand, in the once vacant yard.
||Harold McLemore knelt near growing collards and next to a picked patch revealing the black plastic covering at Knox Elementary School in Selma.
"The area wasn’t trampled either, so that helped," said McLemore. "It just wasn’t used much by the school and that was a big advantage in growing the collards."
Providing a plastic covering for the vegetables was the key to success, along with a lot of tender, loving care from the boys and girls who watched the collards grow outside their classroom and cafeteria windows.
Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks said the use of plasticulture to grow collards also provided young students with the importance of stepping-up to the plate and becoming more involved with what they eat.
"Statistics show more than 80 percent of people who grow their own vegetables and fruit will eat what they grow," said Sparks. "Anytime we can help children understand how to grow their own vegetables the better chance they’ll have for a healthier lifestyle and a better future."
Plasticulture isn’t a new type of technology. It’s been around for decades and when it’s used, it’s usually successful.
Paris said plasticulture uses a different form of irrigation and it has done wonders for some farmers who use it.
"What we’re dealing with is a black plastic top with a drip irrigation system underneath," he said. "What it does is get water to plant roots and, usually, you don’t have a lot of evaporation like with overhead irrigation systems."
Plasticulture provides the area being cultivated with a "cool and damp" atmosphere, said Paris, who added it also cuts down on insect problems and various types of agricultural diseases.
"It also uses half the amount of water used with overhead irrigation systems," Paris said. "That can save money as well as the plants being grown."
As with any type of farm crop, it takes hard work and perseverance to succeed. Paris said good management is important because an important aspect of plasticulture is making sure the water is turned on and off at the proper time "and making sure there are no leaks in the irrigation system."
Once the plants and the plastic are in their proper place, the next step is adding fertilizer, "but not much else," said Paris.
"Some farmers hook up their plasticulture irrigation lines to wells," he said. "Here at Knox, it’s hooked up to the city of Selma’s water system."
McLemore said the area used to plant the collards at the elementary school is only a fraction of an acre, but big enough to place 900 collard plants in 10 long rows near the cafeteria.
"You’ll need 24 gallons a minute for one acre, but, here at the school, we use a small water system providing about 10 gallons a minute," said McLemore who added while the initial cost of plasticulture may be more, "production is more, too."
McLemore used squash as an example of how effective plasticulture can be when done properly.
"If all goes right the traditional way, you’ll produce about 250 bushels of squash an acre," he said. "With plasticulture, you can make 800 to 900 bushels an acre. So, at, say $10 a bushel, you can see how profitable it can be with this particular type of planting."
The two men said Alabama’s produce production is "way down" when compared with other states, especially those neighboring or nearby.
McLemore said Alabama only has between 2-3,000 plasticulture acres while Georgia has 35,000 acres. Florida leads the region with 80,000 acres.
Then, there’s California, the granddaddy of all states when it comes to produce because, McLemore said, it produces about half of all the produce consumed in the country.
He sees a ray of hope, nevertheless, because with the high price of fuel these days and transportation rates skyrocketing to get produce across the country, Alabama could benefit by producing more produce.
McLemore said he’s often asked about how many years are involved in using a plasticulture method. He said that’s not the way to judge it.
"We don’t work by years when it comes to plasticulture," he said. "We work by crop. In this case, we’ll probably get two, maybe three crops in this area at the school."
Once one crop is planted and picked over a particular period, he said a new crop will follow until it’s time to plow up the field again. McLemore and Paris indicated strawberries and watermelons may be next for Knox Elementary School before the field is treated again.
The Knox students didn’t just plant the collards, they also had a chance to eat the finished product.
In late May, the children were treated to collards as part of a side dish at lunch. One 4-year-old boy quickly ate a slice of pizza and two other side dishes, but just stared at the collards.
When Pickett began to feed him some of the green vegetable, his eyes lit up and it wasn’t long before it was gone. He loved it.
"Having this garden was a vision and dream of mine," said Pickett. "When I came back, I revisited my dream."
She became the catalyst for the project and with the help of Principal Joselyn Reddick, it got under way earlier this year when the first sheets of black plastic were placed and the green plants were positioned underneath.
Pickett convinced the children they had no reason to "fear the dirt, bugs or worms" and it wasn’t long before they happily tilled the soil.
As it is with any enterprise, the "bottom line" usually dictates whether a project continues.
McLemore pretty much ended any concerns over that when he explained just how much could be made by selling plasticulture produce.
"The crop here at Knox cost about $250 to produce, but it would expect to make a $1,000 profit," he said, indicating the rate of return should convince any doubters to keep going at the school.
Not long after the children had their fill of collards, the school put the rest of the crop up for sale and they didn’t last long.
People began lining up to buy collards that looked far superior to what’s available at local supermarkets.
The size, alone, was a clear illustration of how successful plasticulture can be. The collards were huge and provided plenty of nutritious side dishes for Selma families.
In the end, Carolyn Pickett’s dream not only came true, but it appears it’ll become part of Knox Elementary School’s future for a long time.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.