College student and father hope their sunlight-starving invention catches on
COTTAGE GROVE, Minn.-Little black bags dot a Mississippi River bluff tucked behind River Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove. The bags-secured over buckthorn stumps with zip ties-are designed to get rid of the invasive plant without using chemicals...
COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. - Little black bags dot a Mississippi River bluff tucked behind River Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove.
The bags - secured over buckthorn stumps with zip ties - are designed to get rid of the invasive plant without using chemicals.
Matt Hamilton, a college junior from Woodbury, Minn., spent three years inventing Buckthorn Baggies with his father, John Hamilton. They started selling the bags last year and filed a patent that is still pending.
His mother helps fill orders for their 200-plus clients from the kitchen table while Matt's away at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pursuing a degree in engineering, John Hamilton said.
The father-son team has been battling buckthorn for as long as Matt Hamilton could remember. John Hamilton used to enlist his son's help every spring to tackle the pesky plant.
Something clicked when Matt was in high school.
"I was helping him remove the buckthorn, and I was like, 'Man we keep doing this every year, and it's a pain,'" he said.
So they started experimenting with bags. Clear plastic didn't work very well because it didn't block the sunlight, Matt Hamilton said.
He spent the summer after graduating from high school making and ordering plastic bags, experimenting with size, material and thickness.
Finally, father and son settled on a thick, black plastic bag. Every 10th bag has a label listing their website and a "Do not remove" warning.
For nonprofits battling buckthorn, they provide five free bags with every 30-pack order.
At less than a dollar a bag, the venture isn't much of a money-maker, John Hamilton said.
"But it's the buckthorn battle," he quipped. "Once you start doing it, it takes over. ... Yes, it is like an addiction."
The bags on the river bluff in Cottage Grove were placed by the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River, which is working with the Cottage Grove Parks and Recreation Department to clear buckthorn at River Oaks Scenic Overlook.
The group began to experiment with the bags at the overlook about a year ago, said current ecologist Alex Roth.
"It's an ecologically sensitive area with some native prairie, and we didn't want to use chemicals," he said.
"We're pretty happy with what we've seen out there so far," Roth said. "This is good with small infestations of buckthorn with relatively few stems, but it would be hard to apply on a big scale."
Peter Mott, Washington County parks manager, just learned about Buckthorn Baggies, but he's interested in the product and how it could be used by his department, he said.
It's a cut-and-cover method that many people have experimented with over the years, Mott said.
"They're starving that stump of any sunlight, and that will not allow that stump to regrow," he said.
Mott remembers his grandmother using Folgers coffee cans to cover buckthorn. People have also used PVC piping to shade the stump, but nothing has captured the market's attention, he said-until now.
Ecologist Roth said the bags are a good idea, even though they might not work in every situation.
"It's important to have multiple tools in your toolkit," he said.
Buckthorn Baggie client Margo Gauthier has been trying to rid her 14-acre Buffalo, Minn., property of buckthorn for years.
"I stumbled across them (on the Internet) and thought 'Oh my goodness, why haven't I thought of this myself?' " Gauthier said.
"I had been using cans for years-soup cans, tomato cans, coffee cans-whatever people had saved for me," she said.
She just started using the bags this spring and is excited about a solution that's free of chemicals and doesn't disturb the surrounding soil the way pulling out the roots does.
She also likes that the bags are reusable.
Although she hasn't used them for a full season yet, she's quite certain they will work. "It's just basic science," she said.
For John Hamilton, it's one more reason to be proud of his son.
"He's such a good kid," he said.
Father and son remember that a fifth-grade inventors' fair at Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury made an impression on Matt.
"Since then," John Hamilton said, "he had it in his head that whenever there's a problem there's an opportunity for an invention."