From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
Awhile back I wrote here about how Palmer amaranth, a pigweed native to the Southwest, was marching northward into the kingdom of corn and soybeans because it has become immune to most herbicides. That was only a small part of the Great Pigweed Uprising. Other versions of the plant (there are lots of them) like our own common Midwestern natives, Amaranthus tuberculatus and Amaranthus rudis (don’t I sound airoodyte?) have also gone resistant. Out in the country, some farmers call it water hemp and others call it red root, but in either case these weeds have developed a fondness for Roundup and other popular weedkillers. You won’t see headlines in the agribusiness press that say “MONSANTO RETREATING BEFORE INVADING PIGWEED HOARDS” but that is sort of what is happening. Weed specialists are seriously talking about gangs of workers patrolling the corn and soybean rows hoeing out the weeds. I like to read Pam Smith’s column (she is one of the few agribusiness writers with lots of heart) online at DTN-Progressive Farming and she refers to the latest in water hemp control as the old Santa Claus treatment: Walk the rows and hoe, hoe, hoe.
Giant ragweed is also showing resistance (you can get the whole long, sad story online easily enough). This weed can grow up taller than corn on good bottom land and can stop a combine in its tracks. As I have railed here before, both pigweed and giant ragweed have excellent food value as grain and forage, so we are obviously faced with an almost amusing irony. It would be nearly impossible for large scale farming to continue without herbicides but the weeds we must kill could, in a different world, be just as nutritional for food and forage as corn and soybeans.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I use Roundup. It works wonderfully well to kill multiflora rose in fence rows. I battled that pernicious plague for years by hand and often withdrew from the fray wounded and bloody. (You do know that it was the Soil Conservation Service that promoted that stuff in the 1950s.) Now I am getting my revenge. In my dotage, so to speak, I drive along with one hand guiding the four-wheeler and the other guiding the sprayer head.
Having, in younger years, controlled weeds in big soybean fields with the Santa Claus method rather than the Monsanta Claus method of today, I don’t wish that on to the next generation though it certainly would mean creating lots of jobs. (Actually hoeing weeds in bean rows isn’t really all that bad— a good way to get paid for hunting Indian artifacts. I still walk my corn rows with a hoe but I’ve only an acre’s worth and I have learned that after the corn gets a head start on the weeds I can quit because it grows just fine even though the weeds come on later. Looks awful but who cares. (The field is not out along the road where everyone can see it.) I hand husk the corn so I don’t have to worry about weeds plugging up the combine. My grandfather turned his sheep in tall corn and they ate the weeds and left the corn ears alone.
But what if herbicides become obsolete? We will have to control weeds by cultivation and in my experience that means smaller farms and more rotations with hay crops. I have a hunch that engineers at John Deere etc. these days are busy designing weed cultivators that stretch over a hundred rows or so. But even if this works, it means more erosion and more time in the field.
Or maybe we will return to several hundred million little garden farms where the pigweeds will bring us all to our knees, pulling them out. Would that really be so bad?