Target 2000: An Environmental Plan for the Floral & Nursery Industry

Texas Cooperative Extension
Texas A&M University System

Environmental issues are rapidly becoming the focus of floral and nursery producers throughout Texas and the U.S. Tighter controls on surface and groundwater contamination, pesticide usage, solid waste disposal and energy consumption have significantly influenced both business and cultural practices. However, most producers are still becoming familiar with those technologies upon which tomorrows nursery/floral industry will be based.

Texas Cooperative Extension's Target 2000 project is providing growers with research based information on a variety of innovative, resource-efficient production practices. The objectives of the project are to help growers initiate a number of innovative cultural and structural practices which will result in the following changes by the year 2000:

Goals:
1) Reduce water consumption to 1990 levels
2) Reduce current fertilizer and pesticide usage by 50%.
3) Lower current energy consumption by 25%.
4) Reduce current solid wastes from agricultural plastics by 75%.
5) Develop applications for municipal wastes and composted materials for the production of floral and nursery crops.

Texas is currently ranked third among U.S. producers of floral and nursery crops. With an annual value of over $750 million, the floral and nursery industry is the state's fifth leading agricultural commodity. In addition, the floral and nursery industry is the fastest growing segment of Texas agriculture.

Environmental regulations and policies are rapidly affecting the nursery/floral industry. The cost of complying with these new standards is having a significant economic impact and will result in some producers loosing their operations. Growers are desperately looking for solutions to a variety of environmental challenges including: water consumption, contamination from fertilizers & pesticides, energy consumption, solid waste management and alternative uses for municipal wastes.

Water Consumption:

At present, over half of the United States population relies on underground sources of drinking water. Rural residents are even more dependent on these natural water reserves, with over 90% of rural water now being retrieved from groundwater sources. But of all the groundwater withdrawn each year, only a small amount is used strictly as drinking water. The majority (82%) is utilized for agricultural irrigation.

Greenhouse and nursery crops are among the highest water using plants grown commercially. These crops are also dependent on relatively high concentrations of fertilizers and pesticides to produce quality products. As a result, irrigation runoff can potentially enter surface and ground-water resources.

Recent concerns over potential ground water use have prompted the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to take action in protecting underground water resources. Pending state legislation uses 1990 as the bench mark year for developing guidelines for water consumption by commercial agriculture. Nursery/floral producers are investing in water management technology in anticipation of this mandate.

Contamination from Fertilizers & Pesticides:

The long-term use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides has created significant concern about the vulnerability of surface and ground water to contamination. In 1990 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the results from its five-year National Survey of Pesticides in Drinking Water Wells (NPS). Of the 127 analytes evaluated, nitrate was most frequently detected in NPS wells. Based on the results of the study, EPA estimates that nitrate is present at or above the analytical reporting limit of 0.15 mg/L in approximately 45,300 community water systems and 5,990,000 rural domestic wells nationwide. High levels of nitrogen in drinking water have been shown to cause numerous health related problems. Even "non-toxic" nitrate levels may lower human resistance to environmental stresses and interfere with normal metabolic processes. Ammonia forms of nitrogen in surface water can be directly toxic to fish and other marine life. Nitrogen can also stimulate plant growth, increasing the rate of decomposition, as well as the level of plant toxins. As this process occurs, the supply of oxygen in the water can be significantly depleted, resulting in toxic effects on fish and other marine life.

Greenhouse and nursery crops are among the highest water using plants grown commercially. These crops are also dependent on relatively high rates of fertilizers and pesticides to produce quality products. As a result, large volumes of runoff are often generated which could potentially enter surface and groundwater sources. Growers in the U.S., as well as Europe, are now working towards the development of water manage-ment technology that will help conserve and protect our natural water resources.

Research indicates that excessive levels of soluble fertilizers are routinely applied to nursery/floral crops because these materials do not represent a major cost of production. Also, capture and recycle technology has been found extremely effective in reducing the volume of fertilizer required to produce a quality crop. Using this system the same nutrient solution is used/recycled for the entire crop instead of being discarded or running off.

Floral and nursery crops typically require several pesticide applications to produce a quality product. Because these plant materials are grown for their aesthetic characteristics, no level of insect and/or disease infestation is acceptable. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques can be can be extremely useful in reducing the volume of pesticides used in crop production. However, special modifi-cations are necessary to make this system compatible with floral and nursery crops. Increased emphasis on scouting and a thorough understanding of pest biology are the key elements in developing a successful IPM program.

Recent surveys have provided details on pesticide use in the nursery/floral industry. Several of these speciality use pesticides have recently been removed from the U.S. market. The ongoing re-registration process will most probably result in additional labels being pulled for use on nursery/floral crops. Growers are looking for alternatives to chemical pesticides in anticipation of these changes.

Energy Consumption:

The nursery\floral industry is highly dependent on non-renewable natural resources to heat and cool greenhouse facilities. USDA statistics on energy consumption rank this area of production as the leading user of natural gas and electricity, per acre, among all segments of commercial agriculture. Energy represents the second major cost of producing nursery/floral products behind labor.

Most greenhouse structures are designed for optimum energy efficiency but improved conservation practices can reduce the consumption of non-renewable energy resources and increase profitability. Thermal video imaging (TVI) is an effective tool in monitoring energy efficiency. This system is frequently used by public utilities to identify heat loss and inefficiencies in power lines. TVI technology can be an effective tool in demonstrating energy saving techniques in the greenhouse. By improving energy efficiency growers can reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and increase their overall profitability.

Solid Waste Management:

At present an estimated 130 million pounds of greenhouse film, 140 million pounds of plastic pots and 170 million pounds of plastic ground cover are disposed of annually. As landfills become overburdened, the nursery/ floral industry is facing a solid waste crisis. What once could be disposed of for free, now represents a significant cost, if a producer can even find a disposal site.

Working cooperatively with the TCE's Target 2000 project, the Texas Association of Nurserymen (TAN) and the TNRCC, growers have identified potential recycling networks. Additional opportunities are develop-ing as recycling technology improves.

Alternative Uses for Municipal Wastes:

There is a growing concern over solid wastes and their long-term effect on the environment. Approximately 10% of these wastes are yard trimmings from the residential sector. Composting and treatment processes represent a promising solution to this problem but identifying potential applications for these materials has been difficult. The use of composted materials (i.e. wood bi-products, paper, municipal wastes, etc.) for the production of floral and nursery crops has been successful. However, growers must be encouraged to develop additional applications for these materials if their use is to increase.

The TCE Target 2000 project has recently entered into a partnership with the TNRCC to help develop specific nursery/floral applications for composted yard trimmings. This 2-year project received $40 thousand dollars to fund a detailed economic analysis, as well as information on the growth characteristics of these composted substrates.

Technology is rapidly advancing in the area of sustainable agriculture. These new innovations, combined with many current management practices, will provide growers with the necessary tools to address the long-term sustainability of the Texas floral and nursery industry. However, most growers are unfamiliar with these innovations and have not yet developed a comprehensive environmental plan for their operation.

The primary challenges for this educational project are to:

  1. demonstrate to growers the latest technical advancements in resource-efficient production practices for floral and nursery crops and
  2. determine how these practices can be economically incorporated in to their business.


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