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Research Highlight:
Jennifer Moore-Kucera

Research and Education on Biodegradable Mulches for Specialty Crops Produced Under Protective Covers –USDA SCRI SREP Grant
Multi-state (WA, TN, TX), multi-disciplinary project
Project Directors: Drs. Debra Inglis and Carol Miles, Washington State University NWREC
Texas Team members: Dr. Jennifer Moore-Kucera, TTU, Dept. Plant & Soil Science and Dr. Eric Belasco, TTU, Dept. of Agricultural and Applied Economics and Dr. Russ Wallace (Texas AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Lubbock)

This SREP project, “Research and Education on Biodegradable Mulches for Specialty Crops Produced Under Protective Covers,” is the result of SCRI Project Planning Grant (No. 2008-51180-0488) awarded in 2008 to an interdisciplinary team of biosystem engineers, textile scientists, and agricultural specialists in economics, horticulture, weed science, plant pathology, sociology and soil microbiology at Washington State University, Texas A&M University, University of Tennessee, and Western Washington University.  One outcome of this planning grant was to add team members to increase the team’s soils expertise and its regional capacity, identified as gaps by stakeholders and grant reviewers during project planning. Hence, Dr. Jennifer Moore Kucera and Dr. Eric Belasco from Texas Tech University were invited to join the team and bring with them their expertise in the areas of soil microbiology and agricultural economics, respectively. The long-term goals of this SREP proposal, based planning project accomplishments, and stakeholder input, are to:  i) contribute to the protective crop cover knowledge base by testing potential BDM materials which can augment the polyethylene plastics now dominantly used for mulches in horticultural systems, and in so doing lead to ii) the adaptation and economic feasibility of high-value specialty vegetable and fruit protective covering systems in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) (cool marine climate), Mid-South (hot, dry climate) and Southeast (hot, humid climate), areas currently underserved by University research and education programs, and with entry of the three regions into this arena, gain iii) a better understanding of the means of biodegradation and its potential effects on soil ecology and plant health, and help iv) promote research and development on future BDMs. 
A primary objective of this project is to improve long term profitability for specialty crop users through the use of biodegradable mulches under protective covers.  To this end, Dr. Belasco will conduct a comprehensive assessment regarding the costs, productivity, and profitability of the growing methods utilized in this study.  This assessment will take place in three phases which include data collection of cost and production information, estimation of profitability differences between growing practices, and an education component evaluating risk management practices for specialty crop producers.
Another primary objective is to assess the impacts of mulch biodegradation on soil and root systems using a primary high tunnel crop, tomato, as an indicator species. Dr. Jennifer Moore-Kucera will be leading the soils team (one of four working groups involved in this proposal) to evaluate the effects of BDM incorporation into the soil on soil microbial community structure and functioning within agroecosystems across the three regions involved (TX, TN, and WA). Field and laboratory analyses will be performed in the lab of Moore-Kucera and will involve one graduate and at least one undergraduate student supported by this project.

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