Oct 7, 2008
Containment System is Totally Tubular for Organic Growers

When drought, weeds and contaminated topsoil conspired to kill Tom Buehrle’s wildflower garden, he came up with an idea he thinks has the potential to revolutionize the organic vegetable industry.

It started with a piece of drainage tubing Buehrle found while rummaging under a deck on his Newaygo, Mich., property three years ago. At the time, Buehrle, now 40, was looking for a solution to his wildflower problem. He had no agricultural experience, but he was an avid gardener with an entrepreneurial bent.

When he found the plastic tubing, a thought occurred to him: Growing wildflowers – or vegetables – in such a tube just might be the perfect way to protect them from weeds, diseases and drought. Being an experimental guy who’s willing to follow through on his ideas, he cut off a 12-inch section of the plastic tubing and went upstairs to start looking for information on vegetable root behavior. What he found was extremely encouraging.

And now, after three years of research and experimentation, Buehrle has refined his invention and is almost ready to start selling it. The product, or system, he came up with, which he calls Agriculture Containment Eco-Systems (ACES for short), will be available to home gardeners by spring and commercial growers by 2010.

Buehrle explained how ACES works for commercial growers: A 12-inch-diameter, 5-feet-long plastic tube is buried most of the way into the ground and filled with a healthy soil mixture. A vegetable plant (or two) is planted inside the tube, and its roots grow downward. The tube walls conserve irrigation water and protect the plant from outside disruptions like weeds, soil diseases and heavy equipment.

The tubes can stay in the ground year round and, unless damaged, they last more than 80 years. Such a system renders synthetic fertilizers and herbicides unnecessary, according to Buehrle.

Buehrle listed other advantages of his system:

Plants can be grown in any soil, and tilling or plowing is no longer necessary.

The plant’s root environment and the efficiency of its inputs can be monitored.

Worms can overwinter and thrive in the tubes.

Tubes can act as anchoring points for hoop houses and similar structures.

Sensors can be attached to the tubes to allow future automation of most planting and harvesting tasks.

Two plants with different rooting structures can be simultaneously grown within the same field without any competition surrounding soil resources or water.

Different types of vegetable plants can be planted in the same tube.

The tubes will allow the production of crops in famine-stricken countries or regions that have unfit soils.

The tubes offer flood protection.

The system is organically certifiable upon installation, according to Buehrle. He doesn’t recommend its use for conventional growers.

ACES works well with crops like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, brassicas, broccoli and lettuce, but probably isn’t practical for crops like corn or grains. Buehrle is still experimenting with bigger tube diameters for crops like spinach.

Another advantage of the system is that growers can start small and expand at their convenience. It takes about 4,200 tubes to fill an acre, he said.

Subsurface drip irrigation is the best watering method for ACES. The system also requires a steady supply of compost, which will be supplied by Morgan Composting, a Michigan company, Buehrle said.

Buehrle has looked around the marketplace to see if there’s anything similar to ACES, but he has found nothing. The system has gotten positive reviews from academics, he said.

“This is going to be huge,” he said. “It makes so much sense.”

He hasn’t worked out how much everything will cost once ACES hits the market, but with the elimination of herbicides and the savings in water and manpower, he expects the system to eventually pay for itself.

Buehrle, who’s collaborating with Central Michigan University and Morgan Composting on the project, is applying for federal and other grants to help pay for his research. Grants will be awarded in the spring.

For more information, call Buehrle at 231-629-8253.

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