Whacking Weeds in Organic Apples, Grapes, and Hemp

Organic produce is a lucrative niche for growers to enter, the market having broken $60 billion in 2020. This makes organic weed control methods more important to perfect than ever — especially in perennial crops, where weeds cannot be controlled by tilling. Instead of tilling, Cornell researchers are looking at a different solution: electricity.

Cornell is kickstarting two projects focused on developing weed control techniques; one for electric weed control in apples and grapes, and another for a wider range of weed control methods in hemp. Both projects are spearheaded by assistant professor Lynn Sosnoskie from the School of Integrated Plant Science, and include collaborating institutions from all across the country. Including such a wide range of localities will let research incorporate different geographies, soils, and climates in testing to provide the best results for every grower.

A tractor-towed device will send jolts of electricity through weeds, which will damage the plant’s cells and stop them from photosynthesizing. The researchers are testing the ability of this technique to suppress weeds without damaging crops or soil. In addition, the research has incorporated a group of organic growers, distributors, scientific advisors, and economists to give practical feedback and evaluate the financial viability of the electric weeder. Cornell’s partners on the perennial fruit research include Oregon State University and the University of California, Davis, which will allow for testing in the climates of the Pacific Northwest—another major region for grape and apple production.

Meanwhile, Sosnoskie is also heading up a project with multiple other institutions across the country that aims to build best weed management practices from the ground up for hemp — a crop which has only been legal to grow in New York for five years and nationally for three years, despite the value provided by its grain, fiber, and CBD. The industry has grown exponentially, but producers, distributors, and markets have scrambled to satisfy consumer demand for hemp products.

“The prohibitions on hemp production meant prohibitions on hemp research,” Sosnoskie told CALS News. “I get a lot of questions about weed control in hemp, and we don’t have a lot of answers other than generalities. What we’re hoping to do is fill in those details.”

Sosnoskie and her collaborators are investigating the impacts of variety, planting times, and weather on weed management, which is essential for organic growers who have so far had to rely on their own trial-and-error to develop best management practices.

“We’ve kind of been our own R&D. Our big challenge as an organic grower is how to prevent weeds. That’s where we need more experience with growing hemp,” said Dan Dolgin, co-owner of JD farms—the first licensed hemp grower in New York State.

Read more about the projects at CALS News.

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Jules Hart

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