From seed to store, protecting agricultural products with fabric.
By Jamie Swedberg
The same elements that make farming possible—the sun, the rain, the wind, the web of life—also make it a challenge. For every gentle rain, there is a pelting hailstorm. For every beneficial microorganism, there is a voracious bird that devours the last berry. Even the friendly sun can turn threatening in the hottest days of summer.
For years, nurseries and garden centers have used fabric mesh to protect their plants from the elements. Now some agricultural producers are taking that idea to its logical conclusion: They are bringing the fabrics to the fields.
Gale Pacific, an Australian company with a U.S. office in the Orlando, Fla., area, supplies roll materials to end-product manufacturers that make panels and structures. In the United States, the company’s knitted HDPE fabrics are manufactured in a variety of shade factors, then made into tensioned structures that cover porches, plant nurseries, school recreation areas, parking lots and so on. The retail products are sold under the brand name Coolaroo, and the commercial/industrial ones are marketed under the name Synthesis.
But in Australia, these same fabrics are becoming increasingly popular for agricultural uses, and these expanding applications are likely to increase in other countries as well.
“We’ve got bird netting that drapes over vineyards,” says sales and marketing manager Bill Layer, based in Dothan, Ala. “It prevents the birds from landing there during their migration. We have windbreaks—the fabric is a wall that blocks the wind so that if there are bugs or diseases in the air, it is redirected upward away from the crops. We’ve got shade cloth and hail cloth. If someone has a planting and they want to cover it, we have a product that will work for it.”
Woven polypropylene fabrics from Belton Industries Inc., Norcross, Ga., are also finding uses in agriculture. Like Gale Pacific, Belton makes fabrics that are used across a wide range of applications, from erosion control to recreation. Now, however, the materials are being discovered for shade, winterization and protection from heavy precipitation.
“For example, if a lot of rain collects in the divots on the tops of cherries, it can cause the cherries to split open at the stem,” says product manager Bob Moran. “Then those cherries have to be juiced. The producers don’t want that to happen, because the cherries are worth a lot more money whole. So they protect the fruit by putting fabric over the trees.”
A rain-protection fabric might be almost completely closed, where a fabric designed for shade might have a 55 percent or 73 percent opening area. Various additives help give the polypropylene long-term protection from breaking down in the sun.
Sometimes the color of the fabric is important. Made gleaming white, a fabric reflects more light. Colored red, it reflects certain wavelengths preferentially, aiding plant growth.
“When I was last in Australia, I saw something that’s still experimental,” says Layer. “They were covering a lettuce planting. Traditionally, they’d use green or black fabric as a shade cloth, but in this instance, they covered it in red. Usually they can get four crops of baby lettuce per year, but by using the red fabric, they were able to get five crops.”
Agricultural fabric uses vary from country to country
It’s no accident that the word “Australia” keeps cropping up in discussions about agricultural fabrics. For a variety of reasons, that nation has taken the lead when it comes to crop protection.
“They do things a little differently there,” says Layer. “They’ll use hail net or bird net to cover huge orchards. They’re very concerned with the yield of their crops—they want to get the biggest yield they can. One hailstorm, and all of the sudden tons of apples have to be sold as applesauce. So they do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
It’s not that the U.S. isn’t concerned with yields, he says. It’s basically a cultural difference between the two countries. Stateside, farmers are much more likely to simply plant more acreage and trust the law of averages. Down under, farming is done more compactly because so much of the continent is desert. Even vineyards operate under total cover. You’d never see that in Napa Valley … at least not yet.
Moran says that right now, Belton is seeing a lot of growth in the crop protection market in countries such as Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica, where flower production has moved in recent years. In the U.S., there is some interest in protective fabrics within the organics segment, but it probably won’t take off in earnest until the economy rebounds. The adoption of these practices in the United States will depend on that, and on how quickly organic and specialty farming booms.
The organic market is currently a small segment of the agricultural market, but it’s by far the fastest growing one. Over time, it is forecast to become more and more important, and the fabric industry should be able to take advantage of that change.
“It all comes down to money,” Layer explains. “To cover an apple orchard costs tens of thousands of dollars, so people here are reluctant to do it. But a boutique place, or an organic producer [where they can’t use certain other means of protection], it might be worth it to them.”