Agricultural Research Service scientists are trying to find ways to help commercial tomato growers produce their crop and keep the environment healthy at the same time.

In a cooperative project, ARS Chemists Cathleen Hapeman of the Environmental Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., Pamela Rice of the Soil and Water Management Research Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., and Don Wauchope of the Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory in Tifton, Ga., are comparing various management practices to find ways to reduce or possibly eliminate pollution in tomato production.

Wauchope and Rice are exploring a computer model's application to determine the fate and transport of pesticides. Rice, formerly of the Environmental Quality Laboratory, is using the model in conjunction with her research on the effect of agricultural management practices on movement of pesticides — specifically copper — with water.

Copper, applied as copper hydroxide, is the most widely used fungicide-bactericide for control of tomato diseases. Copper from this pesticide formulation has been found in runoff from fields that have plastic mulch. Copper can be harmful to aquatic creatures.

Hapeman and Rice are exploring the use of certain vegetative mulches like cereal rye. When rye is grown between rows of tomatoes that are covered in plastic mulch, pesticide movement from the field is slowed down. In a 2-year study, Rice and Hapeman also found there was less runoff volume and less soil erosion, common problems for tomato producers that use plastic mulch exclusively.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.