Popcorn Charges On: How the quest for organic farming is turning me into an electrician…

March 20, 2019 1:22 pm

Our family has been researching organic farming for about five years now. This year we will finally have one field that is certified. It’s only 35 acres, quite small in terms of area compared to the rest of the family farm, but still a massive mind-shift into a new way of farming…

A few seedlings of corn begin their young lives next to Giant Ragweed, Velvetleaf (Butterweed), and Woolly Cupgrass weed seedlings. Who’s gonna win?

I should preface this blog post by stating that I would be a terrible politician…I sit firmly on the middle of many issues (those not explicitly involved in a godly, moral arena where my faith can guide me). So for those of you that farm conventionally, we’re on your side. And for those of you that farm organically, we’re on your side too. I am leaning more and more towards organic (philosophically and economically, not necessarily in terms of safety), but I know farmers on both sides are sincere, hard-working folks that I wouldn’t begin to judge. We’re proud to farm and grow #awesomepopcorn and we promise to get better at that every year—which is why we are both accepting AND critical of BOTH sides of the organic/conventional debate…

I attended an Organic Field Day at Western Illinois University some years ago. One of the speakers was actually younger than me. Recall that the average age of a farmer in the Midwest is around 58—so at 32, I’m actually pretty young. So it was refreshing to see a young guy up there talking about his experiences. He stated some very profound things that started getting my gears turning towards organic. But the coolest thing he showed was a Lasco Lightning Weeder.

It’s no secret that conventional agriculture is (dare I say) “easier.” That is, it often exchanges some level of management or skill for tools like herbicides or biotechnology. One of the challenges of organic crop systems is weed management. In general, extensive crop rotations and tillage are the best tools to stop weeds. And, of course, you sometimes augment those strategies with hand-weeding and there are compelling biologically arguments that proper fertility balancing is even more important yet. But years ago, when I hadn’t done any real organic research yet, in that hot summer day in a metal shed, watching powerpoint slides, I perked up watching a funny transformer on a tractor cause weeds to wilt and shoot sparks. I was shocked!

A lightning weeder does exactly what the name implies: it electrocutes weeds. The principle is simple, really. Lightning kills plants that get struck because they are literally grounded. Biology may use electricity, but not in an excessive amount that literally cooks plant cells. So why not harness technology that still allows for organic treatment of fields?

I’ve been fascinated by this concept ever since. My Dad adopted no-tillage as a system in the late 1980’s, one of the earlier adopters in our area. I’ve grown up being taught to not disturb the soil much, let the soil microbes do the work and protect the soil from erosion. One concern I’ve had with organic is what appears to be a nearly excessive amount of tillage. It seems to me that an organic farm would have to do a fall tillage pass—likely with a chisel plow or moldboard plow, then come back in the spring with a finishing tool, then run a rotary hoe every few days ahead of crop emergence to get weed sprouts before they emerge, then cultivate between the crop rows 3-4 times. That’s lots of tillage—and lots of potential erosion. The trade-off to no-tillage is that its rise was largely enabled by the use of herbicides. Think about how much money a farm could save dropping the expense of herbicides—even if you weren’t converted to organic!

Since that presentation, I’ve read and attended some seminars on organic no-tillage. The results are very promising. But I’m still nearly obsessed with the lightning weeder. Think of it. If we could get great weed control without excessive tillage, wouldn’t that be more sustainable for organic AND conventional agriculture? What could it do for our farm?

The Lasco brand weeder didn’t gain much traction in the 1990s when it was around, mainly because of timing—Roundup Ready soybeans hit the market and that was much easier. But there are two companies I’ve found that make such weeders today. One is in Missouri and the other in Germany. Both have excellent designs for different circumstances…and both are more money than I can currently afford.

Mine won’t come with any sweet graphics like this…but you get the idea. If I had more organic acreage and less debt, these guys would be near the top of my farm’s wish list.

One thing that has drawn me to organic farming is the resiliency of the farmers. They tend to do more themselves and hire less out to others. They are more resourceful, in general. I’m not a mechanic by any stretch…but it has been a fun process designing my own weeder. Maybe it’s my membership dues into the organic fraternity? I’ve had to research how much current to kill weeds at various densities at given travel speeds thru the field. I’ve had to research different designs to best make contact with the weeds.

Moreover, our organic system—in theory to this point—is to use permaculture between rows of crop. Meaning, I am essentially having sod or clover permanently between rows of corn each year. I don’t want to kill the sod or clover, just the weeds that would grow too tall and over-compete with the crop. The manufactured lightning weeders to this point don’t quite address the nuances of our experimental organic system yet.

This week, I’m beginning to purchase the components to assemble. Last summer, I purchased a 3-pt bar—something that mounts to the back of our tractor. I’m close to purchasing a generator that is powered by the tractor PTO. I’ve met with local metal fabricators to make stainless steel contact plates to drag across the top of the doomed weeds. Yesterday afternoon, I purchased the required chain and insulating components to prevent the electricity from back feeding into the tractor (and myself).

With a little luck, I’ll have this new rig assembled by mid-April with pictures to check out.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this story of a farmer-turned-organic-turned electrician. Get out the #notoothpicks popcorn and enjoy the show, it looks like we’re going to have some entertaining learning moments along the way!

Andrew —