Monday, July 15, 2013

DIG IT: Tilling Traditions, Sprayed Down

North view from the Pembina Museum tower
This time of year is truly beautiful here in North Dakota. Under wide open blue skies, fields in every direction are a gorgeous lush green, bursting with the potential of sugar beets, wheat, corn, soybeans, edible beans, canola and sunflower. My eyes have grown so used to a deep-green-and-powder-blue palette, they may never accept the color grey again.

Which is exactly why it is so startling when one comes upon a "dead field" that is a crispy pale brown:

Dead field - note the sprayer tracks.
What's up with these sad fields? Evidently, there's a relatively new approach to dealing with a damaged field, and unfortunately, it involves adding more chemicals to the soil. As with all things farming, such methods are directed by market demands, fuel prices and efficiency. When one is dealing with a limited growing season (May-October, sometimes less), time is money, in the most literal sense.

Dead field
Back in the day, letting a field lie inactive was a standard part of crop rotation, a way of 'resting' the soil and planting a simple cover crop (oats, rye, flax, alfalfa, etc.) to add more nitrogen in the spring. (This also helps minimize soil erosion, especially in a windy place like NoDak.) But that was in a time of cheaper land - say $300 per acre as opposed to $8K per acre - and these days, farmers must use every available scrap of land to justify investment costs.

Dead field with water damage
Due to heavy rains and and flooding in the region, this is a record year for fields that cannot be planted. (In farming and, likely, insurance jargon, these are known as "prevent-plant" acres, or simply, PP.) Government estimates reveal that up to 2 million acres of North Dakota farmland will lie empty this year and all of those acres in the upper half of the state - North North Dakota, if you will.

But even when the rains stop, waiting for a field to dry out and become till-able again is a risky guessing game. Too soon and your expensive machinery can get horribly stuck, all the while making mud balls and damaging the land even further with deep ruts. Wait too long and you'll miss the deadline. Cut off dates for planting are determined by (government-subsidized) insurance companies, and once the date has passed for planting corn (say. May 25), that's it - no corn for you.

Planted field quickly being overtaken by weeds
At this point, the average farmer would simply "till under", meaning they would cultivate the topsoil under and leave it black - this is called "summer fallow". This ancient practice kept weeds from taking over the field completely and it had to be done at least twice before planting a cover crop.

These days, a farmer faces a decision: Till it under or spray the whole field with Round Up?

One local farmer famously insists on tilling - no RoundUp
Fact is, it has become cheaper, and more efficient for a farmer to take the Round-Up route and kill off everything without tillage. This practice has become the norm within the last 5-6 years, thanks to several factors:
  • Cost of diesel fuel went up and stayed there
  • Cost of equipment is always increasing
  • Cost of Round-Up has dropped
This last point is worth noting because Monsanto's patents on Round-Up expired in 2000, thus, all kinds of generic versions of Round-Up (anything with glyphosate) now flood the market. Manufacturers such as Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Du Pont, Cenex/Land O’Lakes, Helena, Platte, Riverside/Terra and Zeneca essentially sell RoundUp under these product names:
Accord, Aquaneat, Aquamaster, Bronco, Buccaneer, Campain, Clearout 41 Plus, Clear-up, Expedite, Fallow Master, Genesis Extra I, Glyfos Induce, Glypro, GlyStar Induce, GlyphoMax Induce, Honcho, JuryR, Landmaster, MirageR, Pondmaster, Protocol, Prosecutor, Ranger, Rascal, Rattler, Razor Pro, Rodeo, I, Silhouette, Touchdown IQ.
Also, I learned that RoundUp has to "hit the leaf" of a growing weed, otherwise it won't work. The chemical actually causes cells of the plant to duplicate themselves until it essentially shuts down. (Same basic theory as making foie gras, from what I understand.)

There are ongoing debates about no-till farming, with proponents insisting that tillage causes carbons to escape, thus adding to the climate change problem. Honestly, I have no idea but this recent trend of adding even more chemicals to the soil makes me uneasy.

RoundUp field, as seen from the local high school track
Is the spray solution the lesser of two evils?

Whether till, no-till or spray, weeds are a constant headache to the farmer - this much I know personally. In farming, there is very little control over production costs, a constant race against time, and then there's the wild card of Mother Nature - definitely a risky way to make a living. With the new generation, it seems this spray trend is here to stay, but some old timers resist the easy way out.

As one young farmer told me, "My dad still can't get used to the idea of spraying and no tilling. It's just not the way it was done in his day. He's not a fan."

That makes two of us. 


Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea that Farmer's of today are dealing with so much stress. Thank you !


Heather Clisby said...

Yes, a career in farming is not for the nervous - it'd make you crazy. Unfortunately, I see farmers' reliance on chemicals getting deeper and deeper. Bad news for consumers and anyone with toxin concerns.

Thanks for reading!