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GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!

From notes provided by Cathy McGregor-Smith and Gary Smith

RR 6, St. Thomas, N5P 3T1 519-631-0279

Last January the Pest Management Advisory Office's request for farm based research prompted the McSmith farm to look at the use of flamers for weed control in potatoes. They wanted to tackle their greatest problem, weed control, in a way that wasn't too costly or labour intensive, ideally while using a method that wouldn't bring up buried seed. The flamer appeared to meet all these criteria. Besides, it had already proven itself in the control of Colorado Potato Beetles (CPB).

Plots of four different varieties were all laid out. Each had a control block, and were properly replicated to allow for soil type, and fertility and cultivar variations. All plots were cultivated within a few days of planting and hilled the first time. A second hilling operation was done on only half of the sections.

Results showed that flaming did indeed reduce weed pressure better than cultivation. However, timing was critical. Early flaming when weeds were at the dicotyledon stage worked extremely well. Once weeds were well developed, they were able to regrow after flaming - often in a low, spreading manner, making them even more difficult to cultivate or hand weed. The reduced weed pressure meant yields were slightly higher on the flamed plots. However, the percentage of storable potatoes was lower. This was due to the greater amount of greening in crusted soils that hadn't had the benefit of a second hilling.

The flamer did fill other needs as well. Although the pressure from the CPB was minimal, the flamer did provide some control of insects. Those that were fully exposed to the flamer died instantly. Those who were partially exposed suffered damage to legs and antennae. Those hidden in the soil likely survived. By the way, Cathy and Gary noticed that the Kennebec attracted more CPB than did the Yukon Gold or the Red Chieftain. The flamer was also used to topkilled the potato plants before harvest, an operation most conventional farmers do with chemicals. This did a fine job burning off potatoes and weeds, and did make the harvesting easier.

Gary and Cathy plan to continue their trials with the flamer in the potatoes this year, but they also see other potential uses of this tool. When used in combination with cultivation, flamers provide excellent weed control for carrots, spinach, onions and leeks - all seeds which are slow to germinate and generally compete poorly with weeds. They also performed well in Heritage Coloured beans, if the flamers covered all the interrow space. In their own operation, they've used small flamers in the greenhouse and protective tunnels, to weed the mass-planted overwintering bunching onions before they'd germinated. Farmers making the three year transition into organic agriculture might use flamers for broad spectrum weed control. With proper adjustment of nozzle spacing and flame size, they could be of value for weed control in asparagus beds, before and after harvest. Blueberry growers in Nova Scotia have even used flamers to prune every second year, in an effort to encourage bushy growth.

Copyright 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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