Weed? Useful crop? Only time can tell where ag will go
Township weed officers once sought out dangerous weeds. Some now noxious weeds were imported on purpose. Hemp has gone through cycles of use. Where ag will go, Mychal Wilmes says, is hard to guess.
The plants with small yellow flowers are common in southeast Minnesota’s ditches and wildlife areas. Years ago, I didn’t know about their vicious nature until heavy rain washed out pasture fencing.
Wild parsnips, when combined with sweat and heat, inflict serious burns. Our youngest daughter, who was just learning to ride a bicycle, fell into a parsnip patch. As a result, she was taken to an emergency room for blisters and burns. Her father felt lower than a snake’s belly because he had done nothing to control wild parsnips.
Township weed inspectors once were more active in identifying noxious weed areas and alerting landowners. Each of Minnesota’s 1,788 townships have a designated weed inspector. If a landowner doesn’t act, a township can hire a weed remover and bill the landowner.
Like many other noxious weeds, parsnip is not native to North America. Early settlers brought it here as an edible root vegetable. It escaped gardens to become a major pain in the neck.
Quack grass, Canada thistle, leafy spurge, and garlic mustard also were imported either by accident or intent. Colonists saw value in quack grass as a forage crop and leafy spurge as an ornamental plant.
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Buckthorn, a tough plant to remove and a major headache for landowners, also arrived in North America as an ornamental bush.
No noxious weed has a more colorful history than hemp.
Hemp arrived with the first colonists and grown to be processed into paper, lamp fuel, ropes and clothing. Because it was vital, the new federal government required farmers to grow it. The famous ship Old Ironsides consumed 120,000 pounds of hemp for its lines and rigging.
Hemp harvesting and processing needed lots of manual labor. It wasn’t until 1917 that a hemp harvesting machine (called a decorticator) was patented. However, it didn’t work very well, and inventor George Schlichten couldn’t find investors to build a plant.
Hemp remained an important farm crop but suffered a big blow when the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was signed into law. The law was designed to raise tax revenue by requiring growers to purchase licenses to grow it.
The industry declined until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and invaded most of southeast Asia. The United States was denied access to southeastern Asia rope producers and was desperate to find substitutes.
The government responded with the “Hemp for Victory’’ campaign, which built hundreds of processing plants in Minnesota, North Dakota, and across the Corn Belt. Eleven hemp processing plants were constructed and employed 1,100 people in Minnesota, and farmers committed to growing 40,000 acres of hemp. Several plants were also built in North Dakota and grower commitments were signed. Nationally, 400,000 acres were allocated to hemp production during the war years.
Hemp production fizzled following the war but was rekindled when industrial hemp was seen as a possible crop to break dependence on the dominate corn-soybean rotations that dominated Midwest agriculture.
In 2006, North Dakota became to first state to legalize industrial hemp production and other states soon followed under regulations that the federal government established.
The national legalization of industrial hemp production occurred in 2018, and the number of acres involved as varied greatly year by year. In 2021, 8,298 licenses were issued covering 107,700 acres. That’s a far cry from hemp’s heyday.
Ag researchers say industrial hemp is just one of several potential alternatives to corn and soybeans. Among them are kenaf, crambe, verona, jojoba, and even milkweed. Such plants could be used to produce oils necessary in manufacturing industries and lead the nation to less dependence on fossil sources.
I recall reading a book about agriculture’s future that was written in the late 1970s. Its author wrote that by 2010, driverless tractors would work fields, cows would be milked by robots, and companies would sell perennial corn and soybean seed. His projections seemed far-fetched in the 1970s. However, changes in agriculture take place rapidly.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.