Photo | Michelle Patterson / C-Shelz Photography
You could call him the globe-trotting groundskeeper. Or an innovative inventor who is on the cusp of changing organic farming forever.
The self-described Alabama country boy has been from California to Hawaii to China either solving turf woes for international stadiums or pasteurizing soil with a steamer he first envisioned and then perfected.
“I have just been issued my first patent from the U.S. Patent Office on the ag. soil pasteurizer,” Eddie “Boy” Woerner, of Elberta, said. “It is fast becoming the choice process as the alternative organic method to replacing the highly toxic chemicals. For baby food, organic herbs and produce, for in the ground and container growers, and on the surface applications. I have applied for three more patents.”
The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) agriculture department has taken notice and so have farmers in the vast fields of the state that produces most of the country’s fresh produce.
“We’re talking to him and testing his equipment,” Dr. Steve Fennimore of UC Davis said. “We’re looking at lots of things and he’s on the right track, but you’ve got to up your game in this state. The standards are high and the regulations are stiff to work with.”
Fennimore says the steam basically takes the place of chemicals and kills everything in the soil from insects to diseases to weeds to allow for better, cleaner produce.
“You’re cooking them,” Fennimore said. “You kill organisms in the soil by getting up to cooking temperature, which is 158 degrees, for 20 minutes. That works. I’ve been working with steam for 10 years and you end up with healthy strawberries and you kill the pathogens. Basically, the equivalent of fumigants.”
But many challenges remain, including California’s tough regulations involving the burning of diesel fuel to run the ma- chines used to pasteurize the soil. Fennimore says Woerner is on the right track.
“What Eddie produced works,” Fennimore said. “But it’s too heavy, it’s too big, it’s too hard to transport and it doesn’t meet air- quality standards because it burns diesel. That’s where we are.”
Woerner, who also owns two restaurants in Orange Beach, Flipper’s and Ole Franco’s Italian Restaurant, has an infectious personality. He is energized and excited about continuing to develop his process, sees the fuel problem as one of three holding back mass production and use of the steam machines on working farms.
First, he must get the temperature up to at least 158 degrees and at a depth in the soil of at least 14 inches. In 2012, UC Davis developed steam machines to experiment on strawberry farms, but couldn’t reach and hold the temperature or get the depth needed to kill pests and diseases in the soil.
“They got 4 to 5 to 6 inches at the most,” Woerner said. “They didn’t get the temperature up and it wouldn’t hold for 20 minutes. They said look, for the strawberry growers we’ve got to go to 14 inches and we’ve got to hold for 20 minutes.
“So, a farm boy from Alabama gets out there with a machine with no engineering or whatever. I create the machine that can go 14 inches deep, pump 12 million BTUs of steam into it an hour. When I went from 5 inches to 14 inches, that mass held for one hour. UC Davis had never seen 14 inches and never seen one hour.”
Woerner says he has bought all three machines and is refitting them to make them work better.
“The machines that were out there, they parked ’em,” he said. “I’m buying those machines because the steam part’s good, the propane generator’s good, the trailer’s good. What’s not good
is their equipment to incorporate steam into the ground. That’s where I come in.”
It’s still a work in progress, but one Woerner is dead set on bringing to fruition by solving one problem at a time. First, proper fuel to run the machines to meet the state’s strict regulations.
“We’re going to buy the energy from the energy source, propane,” Woerner said. “I’ve already got the deal worked with them. When I sign a million-gallon contract with the propane council, I’m going to get to buy propane from 80 cents to $1. That’s number one.”
That alone will bring the costs down significantly, another hurdle to making the technology work.
“The budget for strawberries, including the harvesting, is $60,000 an acre,” Fennimore said. “It’s a really super high-value crop and the standards are really high. The quality of the service vendors like the people who do the soil fumigation is really high.”
Cost for chemicals alone, or for the fumigation, is about $6,000 per acre, Woerner said. Steaming an acre using diesel fuel to power the machine runs about $23,000 an acre.
“I was getting one acre in 13 hours,” Woerner said. “That’s not acceptable with the cost of diesel fuel and taking 13 hours to get it. I’m telling them all it’s all energy driven. I don’t control energy costs but I can try to get it at the right source. For me to get the cost from $23,000 an acre down to $10,000 to $12,000 an acre, I’ve got to get my energy cost from the source, not from retailers.”
Increasing the speed of the machines is the second problem Woerner is looking to solve.
“And I’ve got to have a machine that’s going to go from one acre in 13 hours to two to three acres in two, 10-hour shifts,” he said. “When I arrived on those five farms, I said, ‘Put the stopwatches up. We’re not going to be out here checking speeds.’ That’s going to come after I discover what I have to do and how I’m going to get there. That’s just the way my brain operates when I’m building equipment.”
Once he proved the machine could produce the desired tem- perature and depth and maintain it for 20 minutes or longer, he then moved on to the problem of increasing the speed.
“We’re going to double up the power on the machine [so] we can go from one acre to three acres. When we get that done this year, then we’re going to be up to speed with the machinery that’s going to go on the market, which we’re going to build and put into service.”
Woerner says the largest strawberry producer in the country is lining up to get their own machine by giving him the means to build it just for them.
“Right now, Driscoll’s — [which owns] 40 percent of the en- tire strawberry industry, one family — has already approached me to do a deal where they do some funding and help me and furnish the shop and build that second unit,” he said. “But out of the deal they want to be able to own their own machine and pay me a royalty or franchise for allowing them to do that. They are going to let me build machines and put them in service.”
Tests on patches of strawberry fields so far have proved Woerner’s machine and process can get the job done.
“I went to one of the farms where we steamed two rounds in the center of the field and the rows went in three directions with three varieties,” Woerner said. “That field was totally certified organic. When the plants got to the ribbons where the steam was used, the plants are 40 percent larger.”
Why all the hullabaloo about organics? It’s being driven by two things, both Woerner and Fennimore say, probably the main one being tightening regulations on chemical use.
“In this state, if we’re going to continue to grow strawberries in the ground and raspberries and blackberries, we’re going to have to have an alternative to fumigation,” Fennimore said. “There is another method. It’s called anaero- bic soil disinfestation and pretty much all the organic strawberry growers have adopted that. It more or less works, but it’s got a lot of weaknesses. It doesn’t appear to do good weed control and it doesn’t appear to control fusarium very well, the disease. Those are major weaknesses.”
Pasteurizing the soil, Fennimore says, is among the best alternatives out there once it becomes more cost effective and workable.
“Steam basically is another tool amongst the other alternatives,” Fennimore said. “There’s a tremendous demand for organic produce and one of the bottlenecks is soil-borne diseases and that’s where steam fits in. It has a lot of room to run. We just need to come up with a finished design for a unit. There’s a group in Norway working on this, too. There’s tremendous pressure in Europe to do this. They are even more regulated and have even fewer pesticides choices than we do in California.”
Regulations in California fields have continued to grow, including a complete ban on chemical use around schools and daycare centers, Woerner said.
“The culture change in America is driving it,” Woerner said. “Forty-year-old women and younger have made a decision for their children: They’re not going to put them in and around chemicals. They don’t want them to eat chemicals, they don’t want them to be around them in schools.”
Enforcement of no-chemical zones in California is stringent.
“You know how you have police officers for DUIs and speeding?” Woerner said. “They’ve hired police officers to monitor the farms around schools and daycares. That is serious. I’m work- ing with The Presidio and they’ve just about outlawed chemicals period in that little [area]. They’ve got me working with them to come up with a plan to pasteurize soil, deal with potting soil and also deal with the surface.”
For that work, Woerner is looking to patent another, smaller machine, one of two ways he’s looking to capitalize on pasteurizing soil with his steam machines.
“I’ve received my patent in the ground. I’m working on a patent where I pasteurize potting soil before it goes into the pot,” Woerner said. “I’m building a machine that will go on a big lawnmower and instead of a mower deck it will be a steam deck to where you’re steaming grass instead of putting Roundup on grass. I’ve got that patent applied for.”
He’s also found a use for his technology that can help marijuana growers. The soil needed
to grow it is highly specialized and expensive, and can only be used one time before it has to be discarded. Discarding it is almost impossible because it is considered contaminated because it was used to grow marijuana.
“Now the pot industry has found out about it and I’m going to start recycling the soil for the medical marijuana guys,” Woerner said. “They’re bringing soil in out of India and they are bringing it out of Canada and they are mixing it and paying $110 a cubic yard.”
Woerner says he can show up with a portable machine he’s developing now, steam the soil and it’s ready for reuse.
“When I pasteurize it, it’s better than it was,” he said. “I’m building right now portable units to go from one place to another and recycle it.”
Other work for Woerner includes developing machines to build and lay sod for stadiums all over China. He makes several trips a year there to supervise production.
“I’m in China developing, patenting machines with all the components built in China for China,” he said. “China’s government has decided to build 20,000 soccer fields and 31 stadiums in which they want to host European soccer and they want to host American football in China.”
Woerner built his reputation for being a turf master by developing a sod that could
stand up to heavy rains and football games. His crowning moment came at the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.
Woerner was called in days before Super Bowl XLI when the turf put down by the initial contractor wasn’t standing up to the rain. It rained the entire game onto Woerner’s turf, but there were no footing issues or mud puddles on the field.
“I developed technology for the Super Bowl to roll natural grass in, paint it, play the game, roll it back up and take it out,” Woerner said.
Back in California, Elizabeth Elwood-Ponce of Lassen Canyon Nursery just hopes his ingenuity can make it possible for steam machines to be developed for widespread use. Her farm grows right at 1,000 acres of strawberry plants. She then sells to other farmers, who bring them to maturity and sell the strawberries.
“I’m almost as enthusiastic as Eddie on this issue,” Ponce said. “I think it’s great and it’s the wave of the future to get away from chemicals. It works, there’s no question about that. I don’t know if it’s the most efficient yet. I think it’s got a lot of promise. We’re kind of getting there and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still kind of a long tunnel. I think it’s worth working on.”
Woerner is already convinced his process will revolutionize organic farming now and into the future.
“I’ve invented a process that’s going to change agriculture forever,” Woerner said. “Until I die, I’m going to be the Coca-Cola of soil pasteurization.”
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