DWFI Faculty Fellow Karina Schoengold, associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), is leading a $6 million, 4-year project to reduce the use of plastics, herbicides and associated environmental impacts in agricultural production. The project came together with the help of Nebraska Water Center Director Chittaranjan Ray and is a collaboration of 15 faculty from the UNL, including other DWFI Faculty Fellows Erin Haacker and Daran Rudnick, as well as faculty from South Dakota and Kansas State.
While designing the project, the team took into account the strengths of the region, as well as the strengths of the researchers.
“One thing that we realized is that there are challenges with the growing use of plastics in agriculture and associated pollution,” said Schoengold
The use of plastics has been growing in agriculture over recent years to help increase productivity by limiting weeds, protecting growth and extending growing seasons.
To help reduce the use of these plastics and their associated pollution, the team aims to create a bio-based material called BioWRAP — Bioplastics with Regenerative Agricultural Properties — which can be sprayed onto the fields. The material will provide the same benefits as plastics, but then break down and add to the nutrients of the soil as a bio-based fertilizer.
“One challenge is to create something that is water-soluble that can be sprayed onto crop fields,” says Schoengold. There are several materials the team is looking at for this, but the product also has to be viable for production and the market.
“Given some of the changes in the farm bill to provide support for hemp production for industrial purposes, [hemp] is something that is a new market that is developing…that I think has a lot of potential.”
Once the technology is created, the team will measure the effectiveness under different conditions, as well as soil impacts such as runoff, sedimentation, erosion, water filtration and any water quality impacts that would occur from using it.
Finally, the third objective of this project is to measure the economic and social impacts of the BioWRAP technology.
“Will producers use this technology? Will rural communities have the capacity to invest in facilities to create the technology? Will consumers be interested in paying a premium for products that are produced using this technology? And, geographically across the region, are there differences that we can measure in terms of potential capacity?” All are questions the team hopes to answer, according to Schoengold.
There has been research in bioplastics for the last 10 to 15 years, but not much has been feasible for the agricultural space yet.
“We have very large ambitions about this — that we would be able to help move agricultural production away from the use of plastics,” said Shoengold. “I think this is something that, if it works, there's enormous potential both on the economic development of the products, as well as the use of it in the field. I think it's very exciting.”
The research is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
A summer irrigation lab and field course led by DWFI Faculty Fellow Derek Heeren helps his students ground their class lessons through in-person farm and industry visits.
Graduate student Caner Zeyrek and his advisor, Troy Gilmore, are learning a lot about Nebraska’s water flows.
DWFI has largely resumed its travel to reconnect and engage with both international and U.S. partners in person.