Grand Challenge

Center Spotlight: The Water Center & Rural Conservation with Paper Mulch

Water Center graphicThe Water Center, a Rural Reimagined partner, is working with the Defenders of Wildlife to reduce plastic waste in streams, specifically in the Walden Ridge on the Cumberland plateau – the only TN stream containing the Laurel Dace, one of the rarest fishes in the world. It remains in only two of the seven streams within its original small range, and water quality within its remaining habitat is affected by agriculture.  

The area’s tomato growers use plastic mulch to prevent weeds, but plastic often ends up in streams after windstorms or during post-season removal. Due to the negative effects of plastic mulch on stream environments, the Water Center is partnering with Rural Reimagined and Defenders of Wildlife to examine a new product that might solve the problem of plastic waste in streams.  Regarding the new product, Water Center Director Dr. Jeff Schaeffer states, “Paper mulch is a novel product with potential advantages to both growers and the environment as it controls weeds but also eventually turns into compost. Paper mulch will not enter streams, and growers will not have to pay to remove or dispose it.”  

 The Water Center will begin testing paper mulch next spring at Tech’s Shipley and Oakley Farms, and Dr. Schaeffer adds, “If it works well in our region, we can then share results with growers to see if they might be willing to give it a try. We plan to set up the research as a series of undergraduate research projects for students interested in agriculture, soils science, and conservation.” Wings up, Water Center!  

Contact the Water Center if you would like to engage in a study that has the potential to benefit both crop production and the environment here: or visit the Water Center website and learn more about its other upcoming projects and resources here: 

Stay tuned for more success stories and research opportunities from the Water Center! 

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