The theme of last summer’s Seeley Conference, floriculture’s environmental footprint, included a discussion on how sustainable peat is as a soil amendment. The discussion stemmed from part of a presentation highlighting the new Sustainable Sites Initiative created by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanical Garden.
The three organizations are teaming on the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices. But two recommended requirements of the initiative–using peat-free planting media and avoiding sphagnum peat as a soil conditioner–sparked a debate at the Seeley Conference.
To further explain the requirements, as well as the reasons SITES drafted them, Greenhouse Grower tasked the SITES with sharing some perspective. We also asked Mark Elzinga, president of Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses, to share his reaction to the requirements regarding peat and the role peat plays in his greenhouse operation. Both SITES, represented by Steve Windhager, and Elzinga participated in the 2010 Seeley Conference discussion.
To read SITES’ case against Canadian Peat Moss essay,. Below is Elzinga’s essay, “A Case For Canadian Peat Moss,” and if you’re curious what a few other Seeley Conference attendees have to say on the matter,.
There I was on my first trip to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., attending the 25th annual Seeley Conference. Besides being famous for Monkey Run’s barbeque chicken dinners, Ithaca is also famous for farmer’s markets, hemp shops, musical panhandlers, free trade coffee shops and tofu parlors–for me, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Trying not to look as intimidated as I felt attending Seeley for the first time, I warily looked around the room and instantly recognized the conference coordinator, Charlie Hall. Standing by him was Robert Stavins, from Harvard’s environmental economics program, as well as Marvin Miller, Will Healy, Bob Dolibois, and Bill Miller from Cornell. It was about this time I asked myself again what the heck I was doing here as a speaker, while also making a mental note to simply shut up and listen.
After successfully navigating the first morning session without incident–even contributing to some extent–I was starting to feel energized. Going into the afternoon session, I was excited to hear what Steve Windhager of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center had to say. I’ve always had a fondness for wildflowers dating back to the early 1990s when I came up with the crazy idea of growing wildflowers commercially in flats for Franks Nursery–it turned out few people in Michigan wanted to buy wildflowers in flats.
Anyway, listening to Windhager, my interest was particularly piqued when he mentioned the need to find growers who can provide acceptable products for their nature center. But I was quickly turned off when he spoke the words that rocked the Seeley Conference: “We don’t buy products grown in peat.”
Why Peat Is Sustainable
After hearing that my beloved peat is not accepted by such a well-respected and sustainable municipality, I listened in shock to the banter going back and forth. While some good points were made on both sides, sniper shots were coming from the back of the room while emotional pot shots were being felt from the front. It was out of this unforeseeable battle zone that I was asked to defend the sustainable honor of one of my biggest inputs: Canadian peat.
Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses is a nationally recognized grower of USDA certified organic vegetable and herb plants. Before Elzinga & Hoeksema was certified, I made a commitment to not only grow organically but to also utilize sustainable practices in all aspects of our company. Our use of Canadian peat moss is no exception.
So why do I say peat moss is sustainable? Let’s review the facts:
1) According to the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA), Canada possesses 423 million acres of peatlands, of which only 42,000 acres is harvested–far less than 1 percent of what’s available.
2) Peat is renewable, forming about 1 millimeter per year. It grows 70 times faster than its present rate of harvest. Based on its present use, Canadian peat moss cannot be depleted.
3) There are multiple examples of harvested bogs that have re-grown layers of sphagnum moss years after harvesting has stopped. CSPMA has invested in research that will allow bog regeneration in as little as five to eight years.
4) Peat is light and compressible while compost is not. What this means is that it takes more than three trucks of compost (hauling 60 cubic yards each) to deliver the same amount one truck of peat moss can deliver (190 cubic yards). Now, who has the bigger carbon footprint?
5) Wetlands and the harvesting of peat moss is a supervised and controlled process in Canada. Unlike the reactive responses that can result from other industry excesses (seen recently with the global fishing industry and the resulting over-fishing abuse associated with Atlantic cod and monk fish), Canadian provinces believe in being proactive regarding their wetlands. Particularly watchful are the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, which all have wetland management conservation programs in place to protect their wetlands while natural resources and wildlife programs administer peat bogs in other provinces.
6) Finally, I should state that only if peat is used horticulturally can it be defended as sustainable. Peat used as fuel represents 65 percent of the total world production and, if unchecked, has the potential to decimate entire national reserves. While Canada and Germany are the world’s largest suppliers of peat for horticultural purposes they do not harvest peat for energy usage.
Sustainability, especially when it comes to growing media, continues to be a moving target. Sure there is the option of coir (or coconut fibers), but 90 percent of coir comes from either India or Sri Lanka, where there are more uncertainties about working conditions required for cultivation. In Canada, we know the peat industry results in thousands of steady, well-paying jobs.
The use of rice hulls versus vermiculite in media mix is another example of how sustainability can be a bit of a slippery slope. Rice hulls can be an excellent, sustainable component for our soil mix. It even appears to be a better add-in than vermiculite (which also holds nutrients, boosts soil moisture, aerates the soil and comes from a naturally occurring ore).
In the end, we went with vermiculite because the amount of diesel fuel that’s required to truck rice hulls all the way from Louisiana would ultimately be more detrimental to the environment than buying vermiculite that’s available 50 miles away from us.
I am proud of the fact that I grow a certified and organic product. I’ve invested heavily in wind power, solar and geothermal, and I insist on sustainability being a cornerstone of my company. It frustrates me to hear that a product so vital to the success of my business is not looked upon as being sustainable. The harvesting of peat moss, in many ways, is no different than the harvesting of nature’s other crops–other than the time it takes to regenerate.
The very fact that the industry as a whole uses less than 1 percent of Canada’s total resource, and then actively oversees its regeneration, should prove how sustainable a resource it is and how seriously our industry takes it.
I like to think my company can be an example of how businesses can leave something better for the next generation. People’s misconception that Canadian peat moss is not sustainable is wrong. In today’s economy, growers who balance thrift with ecology should be applauded and not penalized by municipal gardens and other would-be customers for using a clean, water-saving, cost-effective and well-managed substance like Canadian peat moss. I encourage anyone who continues to feel peat moss does not constitute a sustainable resource to make a pilgrimage to your closest Canadian bog to see first hand the manner in which these areas are managed in a sustainable fashion.
About the author: Mark Elzinga is president of Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses, an operation that produces flowering annuals, vegetables, herbs and accent plants in Kalamazoo, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.