P.E.I. researcher using invention to crush weeds in potato fields 

An invention originally designed to get rid of a potato pest has been reinvented to solve another problem. The potato vine crusher is now being tested as a weed crusher for use during the potato harvest. And so far, it is crushing it.

Crusher was originally invented to stop a potato pest but has been reinvented for weeds

Andrew McKenzie-Gopsill says the machine has worked well in stationary, controlled conditions, but this was the first time on a potato harvester. (Nancy Russell/CBC )

Farmers on P.E.I. may soon have a new way of dealing with the weeds in their potato fields.

It was originally designed to deal with a potato pest, but is now being used to crush the seeds that will grow into more weeds. 

A research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is testing out a piece of machinery that is attached to a harvester and crushes weeds as the potatoes are dug up. 

"The idea is to try and destroy or remove, weed seeds from our fields so that we're not contributing them back into our seed bank," said Andrew McKenzie-Gopsill, who studies weed science. 

McKenzie-Gopsill says they don't have an exact cost to build a weed crusher, but it's a fairly simple design, and would probably cost a couple of thousand dollars to build. (Ken Linton/CBC )

"It's really quite simple. It's just two sets of rollers that we mount to the back of the potato harvester — it's all controlled by hydraulics," McKenzie-Gopsill said.

"All of the trash, the potato vine tops, all of the weeds that are in the field that would normally be dumped right back on the field out of the back of the harvester, instead get moved through this crusher." 

First field test

McKenzie-Gopsill said the machine has worked well in stationary, controlled conditions, but this was the first time on a potato harvester.

He collected soil core samples and weeds from the row harvested using the weed crusher, and will now take them back to the lab to see how the machine performed in the field. 

McKenzie-Gopsill collected soil core samples, and weeds, from the row harvested using the weed crusher. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

He will take seeds from the weeds that went through the crusher, and see if they will germinate, to see if the crushing had any effect.

"Seed bank work is notorious for taking a long time — six months to a year — to get any kind of results," McKenzie-Gopsill said.

"Hopefully this time next year, we should have an answer."

McKenzie-Gopsill says the work on the seeds from the soil could take six months to a year to get answers. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

McKenzie-Gopsill is already planning for next season. 

"Our plan would be to test it again next year at our research farm," he said. 

"I've heard from a couple of people from industry who've shown quite a bit of interest in this, and asked if they could test it out in a couple of producers' fields. So that might be another option next year."

Weeds are always a problem no matter what, every single year— Andrew McKenzie-Gopsill, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

McKenzie-Gopsill said potato growers are interested because weeds are an ongoing issue. 

"Weeds are always a problem no matter what, every single year. Some years can be disease years, some years can be pest years, but without fail, every year is a weed year," McKenzie-Gopsill said.

 "More and more of our producers are running into issues with herbicide resistance and poor control of weeds. So this just gives them another tool in their toolbox."

McKenzie-Gopsill collected soil core samples for the field where the weed crusher was being tested. ( Nancy Russell/CBC )

Reinvented invention

The piece of equipment is actually not new, but was developed 15 years ago by one of his colleagues, entomologist Christine Noronha, to control a potato pest. 

"We were starting to have a really big problem with the European corn borer, and once the insects are inside the stems, it's really difficult to do anything to control them, and so we developed this crusher," Noronha said. 

"As the stems were taken off, they just fell into this crusher, and crushed the stems and the larvae inside."

Christine Noronha showed off the potato vine crusher at a demonstration day at Harrington in August 2006. (CBC)

Noronha said the crusher was successful, but the invention didn't catch on with growers, as new insecticides came onto the market to control the corn borer. 

"We got close to about 90, to in some cases even 98 per cent control with this crusher," Noronha said. 

"It was a very simple design, something that anyone could build, the growers could build, and we just left it up to the growers to adopt it."

McKenzie-Gopsill said potato growers are interested in his research because weeds are an ongoing issue. (Ken Linton/CBC )

Noronha was pleased when McKenzie-Gopsill approached her about giving her invention another try. 

"I was really happy. It's great to see that it can be used not just for control of one pest, but also controlling something else that is also a problem in a farmer's field," Noronha said. 

"It's a win for the growers, and that's what I like most."


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.