For a long time, farming and the technologies that support it have gone almost exclusively in a bad direction. The negative trends have included turning the chemical leftovers of war into tools to raise food; relying on compounds that are ever more persistent and toxic; using larger and more damaging equipment that creates compaction or allows endless, soil-depleting tillage; and overbreeding animals and plants solely for caloric production. The cost of these strategies—to ecosystems, the environment, plants, animals and us—has been immense.
New technologies are not inherently bad, however. For example, the same types of robots that now vacuum many homes may soon allow growers to gain victory over weeds. The same tools that allow us to find an unknown location on our cell phone may allow a farmer to put down just the right amounts of nutrients in a suffering segment of pasture or a produce field. The same drones that are a pest in our neighborhood may be able to spot and help remove pests in an orchard. In short, technological progress has the potential to herald a move back to a more holistic, organic approach to farming, one that is not as dependent on chemical warfare to grow our food.
Let’s look at some of the promising technologies currently used or on the horizon that may bring us one step closer to ending chemically-based agriculture as the dominant model in the U.S. and the world.
As a father of five, I can attest to the fact that vacuums play a key role in household cleanliness. When it comes to pest control, bug vacuums are one of the more fascinating innovations to be introduced into the farming system. As one master gardener reports: “Imagine a 97 HP, tractor-mounted, 8-fan vacuum straddling 16 feet of lettuce in the field of the U.S.’s second largest lettuce grower. With the force of hurricane winds, this $80,000 vac [sic] cleaner hurls bugs against metal components for an instant kill and exhausts them for soil amendments.”1
Strawberries are one food that shows real promise when married to the vacuum approach. Whereas conventional strawberries are a perennial list-topper for the “dirty dozen” (the Environmental Working Group’s list of produce items with the highest loads of pesticide residues),2 Driscoll, the nation’s largest organic strawberry producer, uses vacuums directly on its strawberry crops. In addition, Driscoll and other organic strawberry growers employ the vacuums on what are known as “trap crops”—secondary crops intended to lure insects away from the primary cash crop.3 For example, the lygus bugs that like to damage strawberry crops will choose alfalfa over strawberries. As a result, “some farmers plant one bed of alfalfa for every 50 rows of [straw]berries. As the lygus bugs crowd into the green growth, a giant tractor-mounted vacuum cleaner comes by and sucks them up.”3
Do bug vacuums have any drawbacks? Studies on bug vacuums have shown that they have little impact on pollinators or other beneficial insect populations. This is something that poses a problem for many other organic-approved pest control methods; even if one carefully applies a non-chemical pest control approach at just the right time and with the right methods, it may still result in adverse impacts on beneficial insects. Bug vacuums, used in the right way, achieve excellent pest reduction with minimal off-target impacts.4
Bug vacuums developed a bad reputation back in the 1980s and early 1990s,5 with only a few crops or farms achieving moderate success with the systems.6 This may be why we don’t see more farmers using the systems now. However, the vacuum option is due for a fresh look to address a host of pests. In the past thirty years, engineering and materials have come a long way, making it possible to design lighter, more efficient and more powerful systems. When the California Strawberry Commission reviewed different bug vacuum systems in 2013-2014, they found “a wide variation in bug vacuum construction and operations, with a corresponding variation in efficiency.”5 With research and technology improvements, bug vacuums are making a comeback. What was once a promising but perhaps a-bit-too-soon technology may become a prime player in organic pest control in the coming decades, and not just for strawberries but for other crops as well.
HEATING THINGS UP
The problem of bee colony collapse has received a lot of attention in the past few years. Some forward-thinking beekeepers have developed low-tech solutions that help protect their colonies. These work by creating a super-heated entry area that kills off mites and other invaders before they can enter the actual beehives and create havoc within. This same principle—creating areas of increased heat to control pillaging pests—also has incredible potential for a number of crops.
A Chilean farmer, Florencio Lazo, originally invented the heat approach and sold the rights to his work to Agrothermal Systems, which now offers heat systems around the world, marketed under the Thermaculture name.7
The systems heat air to high temperatures—one hundred and sixty to two hundred degrees—and use powerful, high-efficiency fans to blow this air through tall plants such as grapes and berries. Thermaculture causes no harm to the plants but kills off large swaths of pests who can’t take the heat. In fact, field studies show that not only do the systems not harm plants, but they can improve the plants’ yield, both in terms of quantity and nutrient quality. For example, a number of studies show improved phenolic and antioxidant levels8 and increased BRIX levels.9
Using Thermaculture, New Zealand vintner Mike Lane reported reducing pest control costs by two-thirds and being able to control “all pest issues except for powdery mildew, a fungus that required about 50 percent of the usual sulfur treatments when combine[d] with Thermaculture.”10 Moreover, Thermaculture enhanced yield by 13 percent per bunch and increased average bunch weights by 19 percent, allowing the Pinot Noir winemaker to not only “save money on costs but [achieve] increased production per hectare as well.”10
Like the bug vacuums, heat systems, when used properly, pose little to no danger to pollinators and other beneficial insects, because the timing of their use can be keyed to when pests are active but pollinators are not. It helps that most pollinators do not live in and on the plants they pollinate but in nearby habitats that are unaffected by the heat systems. Heat systems also have other potential benefits beyond pest control, such as helping to dissipate excess moisture and protecting crops from a wide range of plant diseases and other problems.
Currently, heat systems are used primarily for cane and trellised orchard crops such as grapes, berries and cherries. Will they be used for other plants? Perhaps yes, although the systems may be cost-prohibitive for small-scale growers. In some areas, they are available for rent. Another strategy is for a group of smaller growers in a given area to band together to purchase a heat system, reducing the cost immensely for each member farm. Moreover, because the heat systems have accrued a fair amount of independent research showing their benefits for orchards, berries and similar crops, they do not represent a blind investment in a “we-hope-this-works” technology.
Pests don’t like heat and neither do weeds. Thus, another very effective approach is to use heat to control weeds. Many organic growers already use flame weeders, which briefly pass flame over the weeds just enough to kill the above-ground portion of the weed.
Steam weeding is another option and has a number of advantages over flame weeding. An engineer working with the steam system explains that “steam is about [ten] times more efficient at heat transfer than flame…because water causes the heat to fall onto the weeds when heat just naturally wants to rise.”11 This means that the farmer can go down a row “two or three times faster,” translating into less labor time and less propane use.11 The optimal time to steam weed is when target weeds are one to three inches tall, resulting in the added bonus of leaving a fair amount of biomass on the growing space floor to feed the soil food web.
Not all weeds or growing set-ups respond well to flame or steam weeding, and more research is needed to determine optimal temperatures, application speeds and the like. Nonetheless, these promising options are showing good field results for many farmers.
ROBOTIC WEED WARS
Heat isn’t the only new weed control method available to growers. Other solutions that are making headway in providing non-chemical alternatives include those that employ robots to get the weeding work done.12 For certain types of crops, the future foretold in the Terminator movies is steadily approaching. A number of companies have developed field prototypes of robots that efficiently and effectively deal with weeds without damaging plants or the soil—no chemicals required. They use a number of methods, with most opting for either a cutting blade to chop tops off of young weeds or a mini-hammer that smashes their main stem. Other robot systems still rely on herbicides but reduce the amount used by up to 90 percent.13
For robot systems that forgo herbicides, the approach represents a double bonus, because the weeds feed the soil as their tops and roots decompose. This is something that is sorely missing in modern agriculture’s current model. Robot systems also can work with cover crops, helping control early-season weeds until the weed-suppressing cover crops become fully established. This type of weed control is even superior to a lot of traditional approaches of pulling or tilling weeds, as it leaves the soil undisturbed, while protecting and improving soil health.
Although many robot systems are designed for large-scale, industrial farming, some are specifically for home or smaller-scale growers and gardens. Tertill™, created by the same people who invented the Roomba vacuuming robot, “lives” outside in the garden during the growing season, requiring neither shelter nor power to weed the garden daily.14 The little Tertill™ machine shows a great deal of promise; as its speed increases, a single unit will be able to take care of more and more square footage.
What Tertill™ is for backyard and small growers, Deepfield Robotics and similar machines hope to be for larger growers. Deepfield’s “enormous agricultural robot” uses a one-centimeter-wide stamping tool that pushes weeds about three centimeters into the soil.15 According to trade magazine reporting, the robot primarily is “designed to detect (through leaf shape) and destroy small weeds that have just sprouted,” but it can also “hammer” larger weeds “multiple times in a row” with a cycle time of less than one hundred milliseconds.15 Describing the results of field tests on carrot crops—where carrots were spaced at two centimeters, weeds were growing very close to the carrots and there were twenty weeds per meter, on average—“the robot had no trouble at all.”15 With a maximum capability of roughly 1.75 weeds per second at a speed of 3.7 centimeters per second at higher weed densities (forty-three weeds per meter), as well as the possibility of increasing the speed at lower weed densities, what this type of robot can do so far is impressive. As the systems continue to drop in cost and increase in speed, accuracy and efficiency, we may see a dramatic reduction in the need for herbicides in the near future of farming.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
Imagine a new kind of farm. On this farm, robots weed during the early season until cover crops protect the paths between plants. Some of the cover crops serve as trap crops, attracting pests so that a vacuum can come along occasionally to remove the ones that are particularly populous and problematic. A thermal system is available to protect other crops from both frost and a number of plant pests and diseases. Such is the possible farm of the future, one where new and old work together to grow food. By wedding the low-tech to the high-tech—such as pairing the simple trap crop approach with the powerful bug vacuum—modern farmers can create sustainable, effective and efficient non-chemical solutions.
No technology can conquer or undo the problems posed by monoculture and industrial agriculture alone. Those problems, which include insecticide-resistant pests, falling yields and human health risks, have been recognized for decades.16,17 It is the combination of traditional techniques and technological innovation that is likely to create better and more multifaceted approaches to dealing with a wide range of farm problems.
Modern technologies not only are providing new tools to deal with pests and weeds but also are changing other facets of farming. For example, what used to take a large crew of workers a full day to plant by hand can be done in an hour by new transplanting machines that require assistance from as few as two or three workers—and some even allow one person to plant completely solo. Similarly, what used to take a day to harvest now takes half the time with simple tools like undercutters18 that allow farmers to free root crops without turning or negatively disturbing the soil structure.
In 2016, our farm completed construction of a high tunnel.19 High tunnels are a wonderful, low-tech way to extend the growing season in our state to almost year-round. At the same time, a high tunnel is worse than a five-year-old, needing a near-constant babysitter because of our state’s mercurial weather. If we are gone for the day and the weather changes—even something as simple as going from cloudy to sunny—the plants inside can freeze or fry, depending on the configuration we left the tunnel in at departure. This can cause the loss of thousands of dollars in plants and produce. Some growers we know have married things like Raspberry Pi computers20 to sensors and other systems that will automatically open and close their tunnel’s vents, sidewalls and doors, either by command from afar or based on the data the sensors provide. Such is the power of technology to help farmers of all shapes and sizes, even if it is just the ability to get away to the lake for the day during the growing season or go catch a movie.
Technological change is coming to food and farming.21 For those of us in regenerative agriculture, the question is whether we can embrace and help push the best of these opportunities. The ultimate goal should be to help break our nation’s dependence on dangerous, toxic chemicals to grow food, while increasing our food’s nutritional value and healing our soils at the same time.
1. “Battle of the bugs—vacuum option.” Apr. 12, 2012. https://beauregardparishcountrylife.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/battle-of-the-bugs-vacuum-option/.
2. Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s 2017 shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php#.WnJs8HxOm1s.
3. Robbins J. Farmers find organic arsenal to wage war on pests. The New York Times, Nov. 29, 2010.
4. Kuepper G, Thomas R. Bug vacuums for organic crop protection. National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), 2002. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=128.
5. O’Donnell C. Vacuuming up one tough bug. The Californian, Apr. 19, 2016.
6. Farmers create vacuum in a war against harmful insects: devices lift bugs off crops, reduce need for chemicals. Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 1989.
7. “Thermaculture treatment services.” https://agrothermalsystems.com/thermaculture/.
8. Manduri A, Sarkar D, Fischer M, Vargas C, Shetty K. Instantaneous heat shock treatment in grape during pre-harvest stages enhances phenolic-linked medicinal properties in red wine. Journal of Medicinally Active Plants 2016;5(2):36-46.
9. “Chad Vargas creates Agrothermal Systems applications service for the Willamette Valley.” Oregon Wine Press, Jan. 17, 2017.
10. “Agrothermal Systems introduces Thermaculture to New Zealand.” Oregon Wine Press, Aug. 20, 2015.
11. “New steam weeder helps organic and sustainable growers.” https://www.winesandvines.com/features/article/51849/New-Steam-Weeder-Helps-Organic-And-Sustainable-Growers.
12. Dobbs T. Farms of the future will run on robots and drones. NOVA Next, Jul. 9, 2013.
13. “Lettuce-weeding robots, coming soon to a farm near you.” https://www.inc.com/sonya-mann/blue-river-technology-ai.html.
14. “Meet Tertill™, the solar powered weeding robot for your garden.” https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tertill-the-solar-powered-weeding-robot#/.
15. Ackerman E. Bosch’s giant robot can punch weeds to death. IEEE Spectrum, Nov. 12, 2015.
16. Burros M. A growing harvest of organic produce. The New York Times, Mar. 29, 1989.
17. Bale JS, van Lenteren JC, Bigler F. Biological control and sustainable food production. Phil Trans R Soc B 2008;363:761-776.
21. Downs C. This farm has no farmers. CNET, Oct. 3, 2017.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2018.