If you saw a bright blue, tank-like machine traveling down Interstate 5 on Wednesday, don’t be alarmed.
It’s not a top-secret government project, or anything nefarious.
Instead, it’s another tool in the cotton picker’s tool box.
The first-of-its-kind thermal cotton defoliator rolled out of Lodi’s Ag-Industrial Manufacturing headquarters about 3 p.m., headed for the Terranova Ranch southwest of Fresno.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Paul Burkner, AIM’s vice president of manufacturing, as a half-dozen workers put the finishing touches on the 35,000-pound, 52-foot-long apparatus.
“It’s the biggest piece of equipment we ever manufactured here,” Burkner said, while at the company’s Beckman Road site. Roughly 50 workers have spent the past two years designing and building the defoliator.
AIM has built many of the region’s grape harvesting machines. Those are the tall, wide pieces of equipment that straddle and shake grape vines.
The defoliator — which can straddle six rows of cotton at one time — looks like a grape harvester, but juiced up.
“It’s like a harvester on steroids,” Burkner chuckled.
Regardless of its imposing appearance, the machine provides cotton farmers with an important function.
It gives them an alternative to chemical defoliation — the standard way growers remove a cotton plant’s leaves.
Foliage must be removed from the plant before harvest to prevent the cotton from being stained and devalued. The wet leaves can also jam machine harvesters, making the process slow and inefficient.
The thermal defoliator, however, solves those problems. It literally cooks the plant’s leaves as it passes over the cotton plants.
The dry leaves can then be easily removed about two days later, and the cotton picked clean, white and undamaged.
Eliminating the use of chemical sprays is one of the machine’s big pluses, especially as growth pushes farms and cities closer together, advocates for the thermal machine said.
“There’s a chemiphobia in the general public,” said Paul Funk, an agricultural engineer for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Cotton Research Center. “This is one way to defoliate (cotton) without using chemicals.”
Def, Folex and Ginstar are among the common chemicals used. Defoliating sprays pose health risks for people, and can harm water and air quality, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The USDA partnered with Lodi’s AIM and the Propane Education and Research Council to produce the machine. The propane council largely financed the work, hoping to create a larger market for natural gas during the summer months.
A 499-gallon propane tank fuels the machine’s six heaters. Funk noted that propane is cleaner for the environment than the chemical sprays now used. He added that the machine’s heat ducts capture and reuse much of the hot air it produces.
Down south at Terranova Ranch, in the farming community of Helm, Don Cameron said he’s been looking forward to the machine’s arrival.
The ranch’s general manager said the machine will be put to use with this season’s harvest.
Terranova has 80 acres of organic cotton. To keep its official ‘organic’ status, the ranch can’t use chemical sprays on the plants.
Thus, the machine is really their only option.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a couple years now,” Cameron added. “We think we’re going to be able to use this on conventional cotton as well.”
Burkner, of AIM, said he’s hopeful the company will have future orders for the machine.
He noted it’s too early to tell, however, how the market will respond to the product.
Its total price tag is more than $400,000, he added.
While the propane council paid for the machine’s parts, AIM invested much of its time and money into the project, Burkner said.
He noted his company does not expect to make a profit from it.
There aren’t any large-scale cotton farms in San Joaquin County. But roughly a million acres of the crop are farmed from Merced to Fresno to Bakersfield. There’s also plenty of potential customers — and more than 6.5 million acres of cotton fields — in Texas, Funk noted.
Scott Hudson, San Joaquin County’s agricultural commissioner, said he wasn’t familiar with the thermal defoliator. But, he said, the machines might just take root.
“I think there’s probably a market for it,” he said. “It might serve to be a good alternative to foliating sprays.”
Contact reporter Chris Nichols at email@example.com.