Down in the Weeds

May 13, 2012

I spent a chunk of time last week attending something called the “National Summit on Strategies to Manage Herbicide Resistant Weeds,” in Washington D.C. Now I’m sure almost all readers of the Thornapple Blog have had this problem on their minds for some time. Sure, it may not rank right up there with the persistent feeling of loss and alienation that we have come to associate with a life of quiet desperation or the heartbreak of psoriasis, for that matter. But I’m sure that for almost all of you, barely a day has gone by without asking yourselves “How in the heck am I going to manage herbicide resistance?”

Unless, of course, you are one of those Communist outsider organic-types who doesn’t use herbicides in the first place.

For the uninitiated, if homicide is the killing of a human being, you can infer (correctly in this case) that herbicide is the killing of an herb.  You may be thinking about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And if so, this may carry you right on to that girl who “once was a true love of mine.” But in this case, we are actually talking about what most people think of as “plants”, though it does not in fact encompass the entire botanical kingdom. And if it’s news to you that there is a botanical kingdom, need I remind you about “Old King Cole,” which naturally is an Anglicization of kohl, as in the familiar word “coleslaw”, which, in turn, is also a familiar food. But I digress: just look up “herb” in Wikipedia and you will get the general drift here.

Herbicides are plant killers, and who among has not had those urgings to become a herbicidal maniac at one juncture or another? I’ve been getting those feelings myself lately, because our warm and wet weather has prompted the weeds that grow in the cracks of my driveway to make an earlier-than-usual appearance this year. Diane and I always fight about this. I’m not sure if it’s because she is a herbiphile and her natural maternal instincts incline her to protect those little greenies, or if she just hates to see that herbicidal glint in my eye as I start poking around for the Round-Up. As for myself, the interest in herbicide stems from the fact that between the ice in the winter and the weeds in summer, one’s driveway can be reduced to rubble over the course of just a few seasons.

Which gets us, finally, back to herbicide resistance. You might think that this was some kind of social movement: those downtrodden weeds have decided to stand up and resist the herbicidal maniacs who have been oppressing them all these years. And if you did think this, you would basically be right. A number of plants are becoming resistant to Round-Up (or as we like to say at the summit, glyphosate). This means that when you spray them, not much happens, whereas when you spray a non-resistant plant, in a few days it starts to die. But why should we care, you ask? Shouldn’t we be on the side of resistance along with all the other 99% who are occupying Wall Street?

And the answer would be…  Well, you can answer however you want when it comes to the weeds in my driveway, but the herbicide resistant pigweed that is more and more frequently occupying cotton fields throughout the South has a particularly noticeable effect. This bad boy is not content to stand there in solidarity with the cotton plants. It’s actually a bully, and before you know it, all the cotton plants have been pushed out of the occupy movement, at least as far as occupying farmers’ fields is concerned. And this, along with herbicide resistant water hemp that occupies soybean fields (and a few others) has put commercial farmers in a tizzy. We don’t actually grow all that much cotton or soybeans at Thornapple CSA, though I expect that members will be purchasing spinning wheels and looms so that they can make their own 100% local frocks and bluejeans any day now. And of course, if and when we do start to grow cotton or soybeans, we won’t be using herbicides, because they are not allowed under the USDA Organic Program, whose methods we follow, except for the fact that we don’t bother to hire an accredited certifier, which is why the cotton and soybeans that we would grow, if and when we decide to grow them, would not qualify for the Organic label. So once again you ask, why should I care?

And the answer to that might be is that everybody has to pay attention to the weeds now and then. We are small enough potatoes at Thornapple that we just go out there and pull ‘em out with our hands. Larger potatoes and we would probably figure out a way to cultivate them with a tractor. And then there are some complex rotations one can use to help keep them from getting such a stranglehold on the occupy movement in the first place. But over the last 40 years, our truly large potato commercial farmers have become enamored with something called “no-till”, which means that you don’t go out there and disturb the soil. You knock ‘em down with herbicide.

When I started out in the agricultural ethics business way back in the dark years of the 1980s, soil erosion across the Midwest was considered to be one of our big problems. It’s not anymore, and no-till is the main reason why. If you don’t bust up the soil in the first place, you don’t get a Dust Bowl every other decade. They used to think that herbicide-based no-till was a technological fix for that ghost of Tom Joad. Maybe not.

The highway is alive tonight

but nobody’s kidding nobody ’bout where it goes.

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light,

waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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