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Growing like a weed has a different meaning for farmers

Around the first day of spring I scanned an open field in Sacramento and couldn't help but notice the many wildflowers that were in full bloom. The landscape was just teeming with a wide array of bright colors. Then I took a minute to reflect on a recent presentation given by the CropLife Foundation to members of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The subject? Weeds, of all things.

That's right, even though our countryside at this time of the year is radiating with bursts of yellow, purple, red and orange, farmers may say the crop version of that scenario has long since lost its bloom. That's because of the endless battle that is waged in the fields year after year to keep these natural enemies of agriculture at bay, as forcefully depicted in the presentation (CropLife Foundation is a national education organization based in Washington, D.C.). To people not directly working inside the industry, this cycle largely goes unnoticed. I'll admit before taking this job I really didn't think about the trouble and expense involved in preventing weeds from choking the life out of our food supply.

These noxious weeds carry mysterious names like cocklebur, nightshade, pigweed, foxtail and lambsquarters. And each plant produces as many as 72,000 seeds that can remain alive in the ground for 40 years. Each acre of U.S. cropland contains 50 million to 300 million buried weed seeds. Believe me, these life forms are survivors. They compete right alongside our crops for water, nutrients, sunlight and space. It's indeed a “War of the Weeds.” Consider this scenario: at any one time there are 2.5 million weeds growing on each acre of farmland. Let's say that on that acre there are 25,000 corn plants struggling to survive. To the farmer this translates into a 50 percent to 90 percent crop loss if the weeds go unabated.

But in the pesticide arsenal of today's farmer there exists a weapon called herbicides. But this wasn't always the case. For centuries human labor was the primary way of killing weeds. In the U.S., summer vacation time wasn't a vacation at all for kids. Remember, until relatively recent times, farms were the principal means of survival in this country. And children were given the summers off from school specifically so they could kill weeds. Millions of people killed weeds in U.S. fields into the 1950s, using a short-handled hoe called an “El Cortito” so workers could see the weeds in order to better plant the crops.

But as both the industry and society evolved, child labor protection laws were adopted, agricultural wages increased from 10 cents an hour to $1 or $2 an hour and the short-handled “El Cortito” was banned in California because of health concerns — mainly back injuries. That set the stage for gasoline-powered weed-killing machines to take charge. But while these machines were effective in uprooting germinating weed seeds and small weeds, they couldn't be used too close to the crop plants and the weeds continue to grow inside the crop row. Plus, the machines couldn't be used in wet fields.

This is what former President Jimmy Carter, who grew up on a peanut and cotton farm, had to say about rain and weeds: “Something like the terrible creeping oozing things in horror movies, weeds would emerge from what had been a cleanly cultivated field, and our entire crop could be submerged in a sea of weeds. Daddy would scour the community to recruit any person willing to pull up weeds for a day's wages.”

And there was another drawback to weed-killing machines; they loosened the soil through tilling that led to land erosion and soil-polluted streams. There just had to be a better way.

So, with Necessity being the Mother of Invention, chemical controls entered the scene in the 1940s. Thousands were tested during that time and a few were found to be selective: they killed the weeds without harming the crops. They were safe and reliable, government regulators determined. Some chemicals could be safely sprayed on the soil where they stayed active for weeks killing germinating weed seeds. Better yet, an estimated 360 billion pounds of soil erosion have been prevented as a result of no-till farming.

How about this for an industry testimonial from the American Vegetable Grower Magazine circa 1956: Question: How do you kill 20 million weeds in an hour? Answer: Spray 10 acres with one pint of a herbicide for 50 cents. Pesticide experts and authors Headley & Lewis, reporting on the profound impact of herbicide usage on Mississippi cotton in the 1960s, observed that with the introduction of chemical treatment it had reduced the labor required by 20 hours per acre on a million acres, reduced weed control costs by $10 per acre, and growers managed to save $10 million a year.

We've come a long way since then and the reality is that most U.S. crop acres are now treated with herbicides every year. And this treatment is a direct result of industry spending millions of dollars testing these products and countless man-hours to guarantee their safety by governmental scientific standards. The results are that 410 million pounds of herbicides are used in the U.S. each year, treating 220 million acres at a cost of $7 billion, according to the CropLife Foundation. Number of weeds killed — 550 trillion. And no matter how you slice it, that's saving a lot of workers' backs and “summer vacation” for the kids has had the chance to actually live up to its billing.

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