Flame-Throwing Tractor Needs No Chemicals to Get Rid of Weeds

While this flame-throwing tractor might seem next-gen, the first agricultural flame-weeder dates back to 1852.
Jessica Miley

Organic farmers are returning to an unusual tool in the fight against weeds - fire. Called ‘flame weeding’ the process involves either using a small, handheld flamethrower, or installing a pretty hardcore row of flamethrowers onto the front of a tractor and slowly driving through fields of crops singeing the weeds in between the rows. 

Flame Engineering, Inc. specializes in developing and selling flame weeding equipment and says the technique is rooted in science. The company's website explains that the technique is not about blasting the weeds to kingdom come, but rather about focusing on destroying cell structure. 

"Flame weeding is what we like to call a ‘slow kill.’ Essentially, you are destroying cell structure in the plant leaf. The weed will no longer put energy toward growth (photosynthesis) taking the kill through the root system. YES, flame weeding will kill the roots too! Even on big weeds (over 6″), you will see a stunning effect and even a kill within a few days, depending on how established the root system is and how long the plant was exposed to heat."

A Better Solution?

While flame weeding might seem like a 21st-century solution, the first agricultural flame-weeder, or flamer, was patented in 1852. However, it wasn’t until the 1940s that flame-weeding became recognized as an effective tool to control weeds in crops like cotton, sugar cane, and corn. By 1965, there were around 25,000 flame weeders in commercial use, but as herbicides became popular, flame-weeding all but died out. 

However, the herbicides and pesticides used to kill weeds have long-term consequences. While spraying crops with herbicide can quickly eradicate weeds, concerns about their effect on the environment dominate. Humans, other plants, animals, water, and soil can all be exposed to and affected by these chemicals, even if they're not the target. 

With the recent interest in non-chemical weed control, gardeners and farmers are taking another look at flame weeding. Flame weeding is reportedly much more eco-friendly than chemical alternatives. After the plant dies, it mixes with the soil and doesn't harm other plants. There's no toxic residue that travels into the water supply or which can be taken up by other creatures. The CO2 produced when flame weeding is offset by the lack of chemicals. 

Still, critics of flame weeding believe that the potential danger of using flames around plants during dry weather, or near any structures, outweighs the benefits. Plus, it isn't always 100% effective. 

Debates aside, we can’t help but think that perhaps flame weeding is a good use for Elon Musk's Not-A-Flamethrower. If you can’t be bothered to pull weeds, simply blast their cells with a quick dose of flames. Just be safe. 

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