Arizona farmer overcomes regulations, signaling new opportunity for propane marketers

July 2, 2012 By    

The moment was one for which Bob Berglund had waited nearly a year. Now that the moment had arrived, he wasn’t quite ready to embrace it.

Sitting atop a tractor, Berglund was preparing to let up on the clutch and drive into his cornfield to demonstrate how his brand-new, flame-weeding equipment worked. At the time, Berglund had waited eight months for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department to rewrite a law that would allow him to actually use the propane-powered equipment on Grandma’s Farm in Phoenix.

Through the process of having the law rewritten, Berglund’s desire to use flame-weeding technology caught the interest of air quality officials at the city, county, state and federal levels. On this particular day, Berglund had invited those officials, as well as representatives from the equipment manufacturer, to Grandma’s Farm for a demonstration. But now that demo time had arrived, Berglund feared he might set his cornfield on fire and lose favor for the flame-weeding equipment he’d fought tirelessly to use.

“Here I am with two acres of corn, and I’m scared to death to put the flames to it,” Berglund says. “The hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life was go through that cornfield on the tractor the first time. My leg did not want to let up on the clutch.”

Eventually, Berglund struck up the nerve to drive through the field and apply the flames. He didn’t burn his farm to the ground, and he’s been using flame-weeding equipment from Flame Engineering ever since. More importantly for the propane industry, Berglund’s use of the equipment shows there’s yet another opportunity for propane on the farm.

History of flame weeding
Flame weeding isn’t a new phenomenon to agriculture. According to Steve Koch, the director of Flame Engineering’s Agriculture Division, flame weeding was a popular method for field crops, fruits and vegetables beginning in the 1930s. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, a number of chemicals were made available, and they proved to be a more cost-effective way for farmers to control weeds.

Today, flame weeding is making a comeback on the farm – and for multiple reasons. There are, of course, environmental concerns with the runoff and particulate matter associated with chemicals. Also, weeds are building resistance to many of the chemicals companies have made available over the last decades. And there’s the emergence of organic farming operations, including Grandma’s Farm, that seek alternative methods to control weeds.

“Weeds have developed to the point where chemicals don’t always kill them off,” Berglund says. “So mankind develops stronger chemicals, and then the weeds get stronger. We’re breeding an era of weeds we’re not going to be able to kill.”

But propane-powered flaming, Berglund adds, is a definite kill. That’s a reason why he was attracted to the method. Unfortunately, as Berglund learned more about flame weeding, he learned there are some government misconceptions about the method.

One such misconception is that flaming entails lighting weeds on fire, which, if understood this way, is a proposal that probably scares off a lot of farmers.

Flame weeding doesn’t entail lighting any weeds on fire, though. Instead, the goal is to heat weeds to a kill temperature around 2,000 degrees. As Berglund puts it, flaming “blows up the molecules” inside weeds so they no longer grow. One advantage he’s seen to heating around 2,000 degrees is that a significant percentage of the seeds weeds set are fried, leading to cleaner fields and less time spent weeding in the years to come.

“In alfalfa, for example, there’s a possibility you can use chemicals five times in a season depending on different issues like insects,” Koch says. “You can’t use the same chemical for insects as you do on weeds, and so forth. Say there’s a severe patch of alfalfa weevils. If they’re hiding under a leaf, chemicals may not get them. But heating to 2,000 degrees makes them disappear.”

Obstacles to overcome
Despite flame weeding’s effectiveness, the method has experienced some resistance because of the misconceptions already described. Berglund experienced some of this resistance firsthand shortly after he discovered a Flame Engineering ad in a magazine.

The Phoenix Fire Department was Berglund’s first obstacle. The fire department initially told Berglund he would need a controlled burn permit at a cost of $135 each time he used the Flame Engineering equipment. Berglund made an appeal and shared Flame Engineering-produced video with the fire department, which quickly loosened its initial requirement and determined he could purchase a yearly permit.
Still unsatisfied with this decision, Berglund took his appeal to the assistant fire chief, who finally realized Grandma’s Farm wasn’t burning anything but rather scorching live weeds. The assistant fire chief issued Grandma’s Farm a letter stating no permit would be required, but he did stipulate that the farming operation get approval from the county’s air quality department.

According to Berglund, the air quality department claimed flame weeding fell into a gray area and that county regulations did not allow for the method. In this instance, Berglund again shared Flame Engineering’s demonstration videos, and he put the county in contact with the San Joaquin Valley (Calif.) Air Pollution Control District. San Joaquin Valley permits flame weeding.

After Berglund shared the videos with his county, he was asked to attend a formal meeting to present his case further. The meeting was not only with county officials, but with officials from the City of Phoenix, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

Berglund stated his case again, shared the videos and ultimately had the regulations he needed altered changed.

“They were all pretty impressed with flame weeding,” Berglund says. “Of course, everyone’s concerned with groundwater contamination too, so they were really thrilled with it. Once we got the laws enacted and I purchased a two-row burner to pull behind my tractor, they wanted a demonstration.”

And that’s when Berglund, up on his tractor, hesitated to go through his cornfield and flame those weeds. He hesitated but for a moment, though, and toasted them with his propane-powered equipment.

“I was scared to death but finally got up the nerve, went through my corn and it worked,” Berglund says.

Expanding the equipment’s use
Berglund’s first experience flame weeding was more than two years ago. Acorn Gas Co. of Phoenix supplies propane to Grandma’s Farm, and Berglund estimates he burned about 200 gallons using the equipment in 2011. He’s now in his third season using the technology, and he’s expanded his use of it by adding propane-powered hand torches to his tractor-mounted equipment.

“Once my crops get too tall, I can’t run the flamer through them,” Berglund says.

There are other instances when crops need spot flaming treatments with hand torches. For example, Grandma’s Farm plants its squash close together with hopes that the squash will shade out any new weeds growing below. Unfortunately, the weeds still grow.

“What I do then is use a portable flamer that has about a 50-gallon propane tank that I have mounted onto the back of a [John Deere] Gator [utility vehicle],” Berglund says. “I’ll take a 30-foot hose and use a hand torch that we bought from Flame Engineering. I can physically walk between some of my plantings to do the weeding.”

Berglund more recently purchased a backpack torch with a small propane tank mounted on it so he can physically walk between plantings to weed.

“I’ve still got a lot to learn about [this technology],” says Berglund, who also uses propane to heat water and a stove in his farmhouse. “Every season I can do a little bit more with it.”

Niche or major opportunity?
Berglund (pictured above with wife Theresa) anticipates more farmers trying out flame weeding, as well, although a wholesale shift from chemicals to flaming is probably far-fetched.

“I think we’re going to see more of this as the years go on,” he says. “It’s hard to teach some of these old farmers new tricks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the government starts pushing more of this because of problems with our groundwater. There’s potential for many crops – cotton, field corn. Time will tell, but this is adaptable.”

Flame Engineering’s Koch sees additional opportunities looming, too.

“We’re certainly going to continue to grow with the organic farmers,” he says. “I’m trying to get the row crop guys to consider using this as well because it seems to be so effective.”

Whether or not flame weeding becomes mainstream among farmers is to be determined. In the meantime, farmers like Berglund will continue to focus on best use of the equipment. One key to using the equipment effectively is letting neighbors know the flames shooting from your equipment are intentional.

“Every time we flame weed we’re supposed to alert the fire department,” he says. “They only called me one time, but they said one of the neighbors said it looks like there’s fire coming out the back of the tractor.”

See flame weeding for yourself
Want to learn more about the flame-weeding opportunity for the propane industry? Check out an assortment of Flame Engineering’s agricultural flaming videos at www.flameengineering.com/Video_Downloads.htm. Flame Engineering demonstrates the use of row crop flamers, alfalfa flamers and more.

Validation for flame weeding
The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has taken an interest in flame weeding and is collaborating with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on several research projects to test the efficiency and efficacy of hooded flaming technology. Agricultural Flaming Innovations has secured patents and plans to commercialize its technology later this year through a partnership with Behlen Manufacturing. Demo units are going out now for testing. Nebraska-Lincoln is also developing a how-to manual to educate farmers, explaining how to effectively use flaming for weed control. Learn more about PERC programs and incentives for the farm at www.agpropane.com.

Top photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council. Photo above right courtesy of Flame Engineering.

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the senior editor of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at kyanik@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3724.

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