Sustainable and eco-friendly ways to deal with weeds

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Herbicides are becoming increasingly unpopular as demand for sustainable, eco-friendly fruit and vegetables rises. Automatic weeders can sometimes disturb the crops. Yet weeds still have to be dealt with, and relying on labour is problematic given the costs and availability.  Produce Business UK takes a look at emerging ways of dealing with the problem.

Weeding with Electricity

Andrew Diprose is executive director of Ubiqutek, a family business which has developed an innovative weeding solution involving electricity.

“Ubiqutek is based on 35 years of research by my father, Dr Mike Diprose, a pioneer in electrical weed control. He was involved in research at Sheffield University for many years from an academic point of view. There were trials at one point with British Sugar but chemicals were quick and easy to apply and so my father’s method was not followed up. Over the past few years there has been a change in attitude, and we founded Ubiqutek. We plan to become the leader in the development of electrical weed control technologies and products.”

The basic idea behind Ubiqutek technology is quite simple. Weeds are killed using electricity. As the cutters pass over the weed, the electricides effectively boil the weeds from tip to root turning any water content into steam. Stems and roots are killed instantly. There is no disturbance to the soil and surrounding crops. This method can be undertaken safely even in cold, windy weather, and there is no possibility of the weeds developing any resistance to this method.  

Touch

The first product to emerge from Ubiqutek was Touch, a professional lance based hand weeder that could be used by consumers and businesses, in gardens and parks, around fruit bushes and trees. Wild Blueberries, a Canadian firm, has already taken the hand weeder on board. Touch won a product award from Professional Horticultural and Landscape Design magazine in 2016 and distributors are now being sought internationally with discussions are underway with several European businesses.

This method of weeding has been proved to be successful against all types of weeds, including perennial, biennial and annual weeds. Even invasive weeds such as ragwort and Giant Hogweed have been killed by this method. In June 2016, Ubiqutek participated in an Innovative Farmers Creeping thistle field lab at Sandringham, successfully demonstrating how electricity could be used to deal with this particular problem. Having worked with the Environment Agency to treat Japanese Knotweed, Ubiqutek is now working with a university in South Wales to undertake the biggest ever trials in the world designed to combat the dreaded Japanese knotweed.  

Vegetable weeding prototype

Ubiqutek won the first phase of Horizon 2020, an EU wide research and innovation programme focusing on world firsts and breakthrough products designed to increase agricultural yields without the use of chemicals. This has provided over £1 million of investment for the next phase of the technology to be developed.  Ubiqutek aim is to integrate the system into an advanced weeding solution to treat weeds in and between rows of vegetables. This project started last November and will last 24 months.  An additional £160,135 was raised by a funding round on SyndicateRoom, with the aim of completing product enhancements, invest in marketing and sales and complete the initial trials.

“The big issue with the hand weeder is that it does need a person to wield it.  We have adapted the idea for the agricultural and produce market. What we have done is adapt the weeder to fit onto the back of Steketee commercial weeder.  A normal weeder will chop off weeds, dig up roots as it passes, toll earth onto produce and weeds regenerate.  What our system does is to electrify the blades.  

“The blades are held slightly above the weeds as the weeder passes through the fields and it puts an electric shock through the weeds, which passes down to the roots without disturbing the soil. There is far less chance of any regrowth. We have a two year grant to develop this product,” adds Diprose.

“There are many different applications for this technology. For example it can be used on weeders going round fruit trees and cane fruit. It can also be used in a greenhouse. If you can electrify the blades of a piece of weeding equipment, the technology can be used very effectively.”

Ubiqutek demonstrated the technology at an Agritech East event late last year where it immediately aroused considerable interest.  

“About 25% of those present came to see it being used and we have had a lot of follow ups already. Everyone likes it because it works and is a green solution,” says Diprose. “We are happy to talk to anyone looking for partners to develop these techniques. We are a small company and we need to prioritise resources. By working with others, we can cover all markets quickly.”

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Partnership with Steketee

It is already established a partnership with innovative Dutch machinery specialists Steketee, who are working with them to develop a commercial weeder for use in vegetable growing. By linking with a tractor, it ensures that energy requirements are minimal since the weeder is powered by the vehicle.  

Diprose believes that the final version will not cost much more than the equipment that is already available.

“There is no need to make any major changes to automatic weeders, the system can be incorporated relatively simply. Work on the prototype began last November and we have already created the integrated electrical solutions.  

“We anticipate the weeder will be ready in June for field testing and already have a number of growers keen to participate in these trials,” adds Diprose.

Foam-based weeding

Weedingtech has come up with an alternative solution to the weeding problem, which involves the application of foam and hot water.  Set up in 2011, the company has developed considerable expertise dealing with weeds in amenity areas, parks and landscaping. It has developed a system known as Foamstream which can be used anywhere except in the middle of large areas of water.  It is often used in sensitive environments, waterways and sites of special scientific interest.

Foamstream is a thermal treatment that transfers extreme heat to the weed. The foam acts as a thermal blanket, maintaining the heat levels to killing temperatures for up to 20 times longer than ordinary hot water.

It is a specially created mix of natural and sustainable plant oils and sugars derived from potatoes, maize, wheat and rapeseed oil and is 100% biodegradable. It works quickly; within minutes of being applied, the cell walls of the weeds rupture and the weed begins to discolour and die.  

The foam can only be applied using a power lance on the company’s MW-Series systems, which heats the Foamstream to the appropriate temperatures. This ensures precision distribution of the foam so that surrounding vegetation and crops are not damaged. Weeds treated with Foamstream require just two or three treatments throughout the growing season. The MW system can be used with a variety of vehicles.

New product development

The success of the MW Foamstream system has led Weedingtech to look at ways of developing the concept further and the company is now actively focusing on new product development, targeting the horticulture and viticulture sectors.

“We are developing a vehicle-mounted innovative weeding machine using our patented Foamstream – a mix of organic foam and hot water. Trials have been taking place last year at our partner’s premises, one of the most innovative Dutch growers, and the innovation, although not market-ready, has been shown to a set of interested companies, explains Franck Balducchi, Weedingtech’s head of technology.

“A rising interest has been noticed in the viticulture sector, where we are contemplating a set of trials in various vineyards next year (in Spain, France and the UK).”

Advantages

He believes that the Foamsteam concept offers major advantages to growers including that is can be used in all weathers, it’s 100%natural and sustainable plant-based materials, it works better than hot water alone and is very cost effective.

In addition, Balducchi claims there is no system in the world as effective on moss and algae as hot foam, Foamstream requires less treatment cycles than any hot water product on the market and unlike hot water, hot foam results in important savings of limited resources of water and diesel and does not require the use of strong decalcifying chemicals.

“It is also very flexible in its application, for example you can spray without removing the protective nets used to protect some crops,” he adds.


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