Nurseries take lead in environmental stewardship


COLUMBUS – Housing development looms just on the other side of the fences of Acorn Farms, a 24-year-old wholesale container nursery in Galena, Ohio.
Cropfields and llama farms transformed into houses overnight.
When general manager Jerry Fultz installed a water management system after the drought of 1998 to conserve, he didn’t realize the system also would provide environmental benefits to the nursery’s new neighbors.
“We looked at the system after the drought of 1988 so we would never again run into a shortage of water,” Fultz said. “Then houses just started being built up around us. We knew it was coming, but just didn’t realize it would happen so fast.
“So we determined that we’d run into problems or create problems if we weren’t environmentally proactive. And this water management system is helping us to be better environmental stewards.”
Capture/recycle system. The system – a series of ponds and subterranean pumps – captures and recycles the water the nursery uses to irrigate its products, occasionally giving back to and borrowing water from Alum Creek, a water resource that supplies part of Columbus and Westerville.
The capture/recycle system, which ensures that the nursery remains self-contained regarding water usage, also helps keep Alum Creek free of pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals that could potentially run off from the nursery grounds.
The design has won Acorn Farms numerous environmental awards over the years, and came to the rescue for the nursery when part of the facility burned in 1999 and exposed some chemicals to the nursery grounds.
“The Environmental Protection Agency came out and tested the water in Alum Creek time and time again and could not find substantive levels of chemicals in Alum Creek,” Fultz said.
“If it hadn’t been for the capture/recycle system we had in place, we probably would have been in a serious environmental situation.”
Proactive payoff. At a time when states like California, Maryland and Oregon are enacting no run-off laws, taking a proactive stance to environmental issues is becoming more important – especially in states like Ohio where such laws do not exist.
But why focus on nurseries?
According to Daniel Struve, an Ohio State University horticulturist, some irrigation methods are inefficient. He estimates the total amount of water applied to nontarget areas using overhead irrigation can be as high as 70 percent.
It depends on the number of containers per acre, the surface area covered by those containers, container size, the number of irrigation days and the amount of water applied at each irrigation event.
“In Ohio, a nursery may irrigate 100 days during the growing season, typically applying an inch of water per day,” Struve said. “Taking the other factors into consideration, conservatively speaking, almost 2 million gallons of water are applied to nontarget areas per acre per season.”
More regs on horizon. Increasing environmental awareness has led to nursery producers in other states to help write legislation to reduce nursery run-off.
Additionally, some states, like Florida, are facing water issues and nurseries are operating on water budgets. Other states, like California, Oklahoma and Texas, face water quality problems because of the high alkalinity in their water sources.
In response to such issues, nurseries are making changes to their management methods by installing capture/recycle systems and implementing new ways of applying fertilizers.
“Good advice is to design container nurseries with water capture and recycling systems,” Struve said. “Not only is it environmentally friendly, but it’s cheaper to recycle water than it is to pump additional water out of wells.”
The irrigation systems at Acorn Farms have maximum capacity to pump 2,300 gallons of water an hour over 150 acres of land. But with the capture/recycle water management system, 200,000 to 300,000 gallons of water is recycled per day.
Other steps. Nurseries like Acorn Farms, which rely on overhead irrigation, also are using drip irrigation under certain circumstances to help save water.
Additionally, nurseries are changing the way they apply fertilizers, as slow-release products that are applied directly to the container surface.
New formulations of controlled release fertilizers are being developed to match fertilizer release rates with plant demand, thus increasing fertilizer efficiency.
“If drip or micro-irrigation is used, no water is applied to the foliage and, thus, pesticides are not washed off the crop plants,” Struve said.
Struve said that most nurseries already have capture/recycle systems.
Fultz is pleased that his schooling in biology and natural resources helped prepare him for tackling such environmental issues. But, looking across the fence at new housing developments, he wonders what environmental problems will arise with the urbanization.
“The continued development of the valley concerns me,” Fultz said. “The soil will change – all of this asphalt and concrete will have an impact. With more people moving into the area, the water quality of Alum Creek will change.
“And I’m constantly asking myself, what can we, as a nursery business, do to protect ourselves in the area being flooded by all this development?”


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