- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
UC researchers are considering the use of hot steam fumigation on coastal central California farms to prepare soil for planting strawberries and new orchards and vineyards. Farmers there have for years relied on methyl bromide, but the phase-out of the powerful soil fumigant is closing in, according to an article in The Packer.
To study the steam method, UC weed specialist Steve Fennimore outfitted a tractor with a boiler that heats steam to more than 300 degrees F. Ten-inch spikes inject steam into the ground.
The article, written by Elizabeth Ashby, said sandy or light soils are the easiest to treat, but Fennimore has had success in clay loam in Watsonville, Calif.
“This machine…there is something special about it,” Fennimore was quoted in the story. “It is surprising how fast it heats the soil. Within two minutes, it will take 60-degree soil and heat it to 200 degrees. It is like a microwave.”
The quick-acting treatment allows growers to steam in the morning and plant that afternoon when the ground has cooled. That stands in contrast to soil solarization, another possible methyl bromide alternative. Under the solarization system, the field is covered with plastic and the sun heats the soil and kills pathogens. Solarization takes six weeks.
One drawback of the steam system, however, is cost. Fennimore calculated that operating the steam machine, labor and fuel run $4,200 per acre. Methyl bromide in California costs $2,700 to $3,000 per acre. Applying steam to raised beds rather than entire fields could cut expenses to about $3,000 per acre.
Future studies will examine less expensive fuels like propane, ways to speed up the steam injection process and spot treatments.