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IPM going strong - Carrboro’s Chris Gerry talks hot water & more

Chris Gerry explains how the steam machime works In 1999 the Carrboro Board of Alderman approved a least-toxic pest control policy for the town that included, among other measures, the use of a Waipuna hot-water machine to kill weeds with steam instead of chemicals. The policy and the techniques have drawn attention from around the world, and still continue to generate interest. We bring you an update on the program through this interview with its progenitor and manager, Chris Gerry. ARC met with Chris at his office in Carrboro’s Public Works building, where a framed clipping calling Carrboro one of the Pesticide Industry’s “Top 10 anti-pesticide hot spots” hangs on the wall behind his desk.

Interview by Fawn Pattison - Agricultural Resources Center

Photos by Allen Spalt and Chris Gerry

FP: Would you talk a bit about how the policy was developed here – it started with outdoor uses, is that right?

CG: When I came here, knowing that Carrboro was not a place people like to use pesticides, I thought, what a great place to start weaning back the program. I did not want any employees exposed to soil-absorbed chemicals when they’re working in the soil with their hands. So I got rid of insecticides, and we finally got to the point where the only chemical we were using was glyphosate (Roundup) for weed control. Allen Spalt (ARC’s President, then director) got elected and discussed it with the (Carrboro) Board (of Aldermen).

The steam machine in action The Board said this is a good thing for Carrboro, so they approached me and asked if we could in fact wean back on our chemical use. We did an overview for them, and we basically were only using glyphosate. So my people said, okay, come up with something that’s an alternative, and come up with a price. This took about a year. And using the group from California and their great catalog (BIRC), I found the Waipuna people. They had the steam machine for the herbicide end of our control program.

I also had to deal with the weeds in our sports fields. I was told by a couple of Phd’s at NC State that I would probably be sued for the condition of our fields if I did not start using chemicals. I had to come up with a cultural method, so we decided to mow them daily with high fertilization – no additives. None of these noxious weeds can tolerate being mowed every 48 or 36 hours at 3/4 inch in non-irrigated fields. Then I proposed that we over-seed the fields on an annual basis with a variety of blends of hybrid Bermuda grass, and eventually convert the fields from cool-season to warm-season grasses. They’d be far more resilient to play. You fall into this trap, when you get into cool-season grasses, because a cool-season grass requires 6 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet three times a year, average. And Bermuda grass requires a whole lot less.

Allen Spalt watches the steam machime in action The next thing we had to come up with was a program for structural pesticide application. We had unregulated control here. If somebody saw a termite somewhere they would pump hundreds of gallons of insecticide into the foundations and walls of our buildings. So we came up with a proposal and got the glue traps, bait stations, fly traps, moth traps, and education: empty the trash cans regularly, break areas have to be clean, banana peels are a no-no in trash cans overnight, if you like cookies and candy that’s fine, but you’ve got to bring them in tupperware. For roaches, we used boric acid and sticky traps with pheremones, this type of thing. So I put all this together in a program form and came up with around $200,000 to kick it off, because I also had to hire another person, which was part of the program …and the guffaws that I received! If you’ve ever been to a Board meeting, we are a frugal society here. We would make thrift shops look very generous, the way we manage our budgets.

We implemented the program, and we’ve gone around the state speaking. If it hadn’t been for Allen Spalt, his common-sense approach and ability to get the idea across to the broad spectrum of people without seeming to be what they would consider a salivating fanatic... That was probably the most important thing in this whole process was his presence as an elected official, and his newsworthy approach to what we were doing.

It has been a fight daily to keep this program going. There are people within this world, within the academic community, within local government, who are just absolutely opposed to this type of thing taking root.

FP: The term ‘Integrated Pest Management’ means different things to different people. At ARC we define it as using the cultural and mechanical methods first, and saving out the least-toxic chemicals as a last resort. But the industry folks like to say that chemicals are an important part of the ‘IPM Toolbox.’ What do you think is the appropriateness of chemicals in an IPM program?

Steaming away the weeds CG: Our policy is set up so that we can fall back on chemicals if all else fails, but I am committed to never doing that. This is our third year without using chemicals. If you can go three years and not use chemicals, you don’t have to use chemicals ever.

FP: Is the IPM Policy cost-effective compared to conventional methods?

CG: It does cost more, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Glyphosate’s cheap because they want you to buy great amounts of it. But if I was using glyphosate (Roundup) I would have to have a tractor and a water tank, just like I’m using now, with a mix in there, and a man on the ground using the spray nozzle and a man on the tractor behind him. That hasn’t changed. I have found that this works as good as glyphosate, and it lasts as long as glyphosate. I don’t need a licensed applicator, so I don’t need to send them to school. I can do it when it’s raining or very damp, or when the wind’s blowing. You can’t use chemicals legally when any of these things are occurring, so that’s a big plus.

FP: What are the biggest benefits and drawbacks of the program?

CG: It costs a little more, because we’ve got to maintain the machinery, and we’ve got to have people who are qualified, and pay them for those qualifications. The drawbacks: it ain’t a popular program. It’s a daily fight. Good people get into that old ingrained thing of ‘Where is my spray can? When I see an insect that’s bothering me, I want somebody here right now to spray this place!’ That’s the kind of thing we have to put up with.

The benefits are no chemicals. We don’t blow our own horn, but if a family goes to use any public grounds in Carrboro, be it a picnic or the Farmer’s Market, a soccer game at Anderson park, or a day rolling in the grass at Wilson Park – chemical free. Now where can you go to get that? You don’t have to travel far, but if you travel outside of Carrboro, you don’t know what’s on the ground. They don’t advertise what they put on the ground. That’s a major benefit to the health and well-being of the citizens of Carrboro.

Chris is a great resource for institutions looking to manage their facilities without toxics, and frequently offers demonstrations of the famed weed-killing machine. He can be reached in his office at (919) 918-7431. The Town’s IPM policy is available on the web at

The Agricultural Resources Center is a private, nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to reducing human and environmental exposures to toxic pesticides. Find them on the web at, or call (919) 833-5333.


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