‘Weed Blaster’ Technology a Boost Organic Farming

By Tim Landis • The (Springfield) State Journal-Register


The four-row grit applicator in action, driven by Charles Hennen. (Photo: Frank Forcella)
The four-row grit applicator in action, driven by Charles Hennen. (Photo: Frank Forcella)

ATLANTA, Ill. • Researchers at the University of Illinois are blasting away at noxious weeds.

Fields test are expected to begin this summer of Star Wars sounding “weed blaster” technology that fires, concentrated organic grit from a high-pressure nozzle at Mach 1 — more than 760 mph — to obliterate vulnerable weed seedlings. Early field tests of hand-held air compressors used in conjunction with traditional control methods reduced weed waste in vegetable plots by 67 to 97 percent, according to early results.

“It’s another non-chemical, weed-management approach,” said Sam Wortman, a researcher on the project and an assistant professor at U of I. “We’re looking at some of the higher-value vegetable crops.”

Wortman said field tests of hand-held models began in 2012 at greenhouses and on small vegetable plots. He said the automated model to be tested this summer requires only a tractor and an operator. Organic grit used to blast weed stems — soybean meal, walnut shells, corncobs and green sand — doubles as fertilizer.

Commercial use likely is years away, said Wortman. But he said refinements should continue to lower costs compared with traditional organic weed-control methods such as cover crops, bioplastic, mulch and old-fashioned weeding by hand. Field tests also have reduced unintended damage to crops by targeting weeds at early growth stages of less than three inches.

“We’re still fairly early in working out the mechanics,” said Wortman.

Organic farming has grown in Illinois along with consumer and supermarket demand for pesticide-free, locally grown foods, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey. Sales of organic commodities in Illinois totaled $52.7 million from 249 certified producers in 2014 compared with $25.2 million in sales from 229 farms in 2008.