CORVALLIS, Ore. — Farmers who grow specialty seeds in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have plenty of weeds but few herbicides to choose from.
Using a combination of science and diplomacy, researcher Ed Peachey convinces chemical companies to make weed-killing products available for such high-value, niche crops.
“There is little financial incentive. They don’t get much money back,” said Peachey, an Oregon State University horticulture professor. “The chance of getting a return on investment for them is pretty small.”
To major herbicide manufacturers, the money generated from an herbicide sprayed on several thousand specialty crop acres is basically a rounding error compared to a major commodity like corn.
Due to the high value of specialty seeds, companies are also reluctant to include them on their herbicide labels because they want to avoid liability for potential crop damage.
Peachey’s job is to work with farmers and the state’s Department of Agriculture to test specific herbicides on seed crops to see if they’re effective and whether they cause much crop damage.
Since specialty seeds fetch relatively strong prices, farmers have a higher tolerance for damage compared to those who grow commodity crops grown on razor-thin margins — as long as weed competition is reduced.
Once he’s compiled the data, Peachey must persuade the herbicide’s manufacturer it’s not taking an excessive risk by expanding the chemical’s label registration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Hard science and more
“Depending on the product, it can be very difficult to do that,” Peachey said, adding that obtaining such permission requires cajoling as well as hard science.
“We know it’s meaningless to you, but just out of the kindness of your heart,” he jokingly describes a typical plea.
Peachey performs a comparable function for farmers of processed vegetables, who also grow valuable crops on a relatively small number of acres.
In that case, though, he collects data that allows the USDA to determine the “tolerances” for pesticide residues on food crops that won’t harm people.
The USDA then petitions the EPA to expand the product’s label registration, based on research paid for by the Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission, which raises money from growers.
“Everybody gets on the same page: We want this product, this is what we’ve got to do,” Peachey said.
However, Peachey’s work isn’t limited to studying herbicides.
For example, he’s also conducted a long-range project on the possibility of using ground beetles to reduce weed seeds in the soil.
While ground beetles will consume such seeds, they’re unfortunately more focused on devouring such sources of protein as slug eggs and earthworms.
“There’s a lot of stuff they’d rather eat,” Peachey said.
Another research project involved planting cover crop seeds among the main crop before it gets harvested. Cover crops prevent erosion and crowd out weeds, but they can be tricky to establish during the moist autumn season, when fields can be too wet for machinery.
Peachey demonstrated that cover crops can successfully be inter-seeded even among highly competitive crops, such as corn, with a planter that has three feet of clearance.
Mechanical innovations for weed control are also taking place, such as the robotic cultivator that Peachey and several farmers recently tested on squash and other local crops.
The “Robovator” takes images of crops and weeds as it passes through the field, clinching its knives to kill unwanted plants based on their different size. The system reduces manual hoeing expenses.
“We explore everything that has potential,” Peachey said.
Flaming weeds with a torch is another non-chemical weed treatment that he’s studied, focusing on the ideal time to perform the operation without damaging the crop.
“You want to go as late as possible to get the weeds that come up,” he said. “It’s all about timing.”
Interest in ag
Though he grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania, Peachey initially wanted to pursue a higher education in electrical engineering.
However, a project involving time-lapse photography of weed emergence rekindled his interest in agriculture.
Peachey initially worked in the nonprofit field, helping farmers in Bangladesh recover from a major famine.
He then returned to Oregon State University, his alma mater, to conduct applied research, such as the weed studies needed by seed and processed vegetable farmers.
Weeds are never a stagnant research subject, since new species are always moving in while old ones find ways to adapt to herbicides.
“You can always count on weeds, taxes and concrete cracking,” Peachey said.