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VIDEO COLUMN: Weeds cause field frustration

Like many of you, I hate weeds.

And like many of you, I deal with them both personally and professionally.

On a professional level, I cover them regularly. A recent example: I wrote about a study that found weeds, if uncontrolled, would do $43 billion in damage annually to corn and soybean fields in the U.S. and Canada.

Weeds have always been part of my personal life, too. One example of many: Years ago, as a farm kid in central North Dakota, I walked up and down wooded coulees, manually applying granular herbicide in spots where leafy spurge was established in our pastures. The prolific weed, which cattle won’t eat, chokes out grass.

Now, despite my best efforts, weeds keep popping among the apple trees I’ve planted on the family farm. No matter how often I hoe, pull ’em by hand and apply glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) new weeds continue to pop up. Viable weed seeds can survive in a dormant state in soil for years, even decades, so my battle will never end.

Recently, when I was hoeing a new batch of weeds, I thought, “I usually pontificate in my column about controversial stuff like corporate farming and farmland rental rates. As a change of pace, I’ll do my next one on weeds. Everybody hates ’em.”

True, weeds aren’t altogether bad. They come back very quickly in disturbed soil, reducing erosion. A world without weeds would lose even more precious topsoil. And experienced gardeners say some weeds bring benefits, such as controlling harmful insects and attracting good ones.

But weeds also rob farmers of yields and profits. They steal food from a world in which far too many people are hungry. There’s nothing controversial in saying weeds, on balance, are bad; we all agree on that.


When I think about it, however, I realize that weeds generate a lot of disagreement, too. A few examples:

  • What’s the proper role of herbicides in controlling them? The use of Roundup is particularly controversial. I personally think it’s fine. But I realize some smart, thoughtful people believe otherwise.

  • How to balance good stewardship against short-term profits? The great majority of farmers work diligently to control weeds; a few do not. I’m thinking primarily of a handful of producers who rent land for one year at a very high rate, then recoup the higher cost by skimping on the expense of weed control. No room for honest debate on this one: Shortchanging weed control and good stewardship to make a few bucks is wrong and unconscionable.

  • What constitutes a weed? To some farmers, healthy trees in an unwanted shelterbelt are giant weeds to remove. To other farmers, and to nonfarmers, they’re a resource to protect. My take? Depends on how much useful life the trees have left. If they’re close to the end, I’m not bothered. If they’re still young, I am.

Well, weeds remain important to me, both personally and professionally.

I’ll keep after those weeds among my apple trees. And I’ll continue to cover them for Agweek.

I’ll keep on hating ’em, too. And I’ll remember that even weeds are controversial.