This is why American farmers have started to use flamethrowers

This is why American farmers have started to use flamethrowers

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Think of vegetable farming and you might imagine a tatty straw scarecrow, stupidly smiling at a flock of happy crows as they peck at loosely scattered grain. A ruddy-faced farmer called Geoff might yell angrily at them from the window of a passing tractor. Or, if you’re feeling even more quaint, you could picture a lazy cow called Daisy, tied to a plough and pausing for a nibble on some uncut grass. You probably wouldn’t think of something that looks like a prop from Mad Max.

Yet, as farmers have become more determined than ever to repel attacks from unwanted crop invaders, that is exactly what has started to happen on the fields of southwestern Minnesota. With the war against weeds an ongoing struggle across the state, some have decided to take the military option. Crop dusting planes and chemical warfare are nothing new. What is surprising is the addition of a flamethrower to farmers’ arsenal.

The pioneer of this new attitude to arable is corn, soybean and alfalfa grower Carolyn Olsen. Having spent decades fruitlessly fighting against the advance of weeds like Canada thistle and water hemp, it became clear that something more radical was needed. 15 years ago, she took a DIY approach to pest control and fitted her tractor with a homemade flame-weeder.

The contraption wouldn’t look out of place at a Rammstein concert. Instead of the chemicals and fertilisers that usually function as anti-weed weaponry, the flame-weeder is fitted with 36 fire-spouting burners. Since Olsen makes her livelihood from fire resistant crops, she can afford to unleash the contraption on her fields - confident that the weeds will burn whilst everything else is left untouched.

While many farmers would recoil in horror at the idea of setting their own crops on fire, Olsen is confident in her unorthodox approach. Discussing her techniques, Olsen revealed that “The heat from the flame causes the moisture in cells of the leaves to expand, and burst the cell walls.” Though she herself only uses the flame-weeder on corn - since the plant’s precious growing point is naturally protected - Olsen adds that “It is risky to flame weed soybeans, though some farmers do.”

flame weeder Credit: Atlas Obscura/Carolyn Olson

You could be forgiven for thinking that farming with a flamethrower is a tad OTT. But, believe it or not, sometimes it’s a necessity. In order to produce organic vegetables, American farmers are forbidden from using artificial chemicals and pesticides, instead often having to rely on handpicking their produce to retain organic status. Using fire is a clever, if slightly alarming solution to the problem.

There is also a hidden history of flaming farming that dates back to the 1940s. Before chemical pesticides and weed killers became commonplace, gas burners were often the only way that farmers could hope to conduct large scale crop care. Now that Olsen is bringing it back, we could be about to see a resurgence. Whatever you think of the pros and cons, it’s obvious that this heavy metal attitude to vegetables is one of the most exciting things to happen to farming for a very long time.