I think I’ve met the world’s worst weed.
Tall waterhemp takes no prisoners. It is big, prolific, and tough to kill.
It can grow as high as eight feet. A single plant can release a half million seeds. To keep it from overrunning our corn and soybean fields here in Iowa, farmers like me must fight it in a war that lasts all summer.
There’s only one way for the crops to win, and that’s with the safe and robust crop-protection products that help us keep this terrible weed in check.
Unfortunately, a few people who don’t understand the challenges of farming want to restrict the reliable tools that allow us to control tall waterhemp and its ilk. If these weed-loving foes of modern agriculture get their way, farmers will have a harder time producing the crops the rest of the world needs. Food will become less abundant. Everyone’s grocery-store and food bills will rise. It will even hurt the environment.
Sometimes I wonder how these critics think farmers would replace crop-protection products. Do they believe we’d turn back the clock and go back to the days of manual labor, when farmers walked their fields and yanked weeds from the dirt, one by one?
That’s like saying we should all surrender our smart phones and their text messaging capabilities and return to a system in which we write letters by hand, stick them in envelopes, and lick stamps.
I like receiving handwritten notes by mail as much as anybody, but this is no way to handle communication in the 21st century.
Several years ago, a scholar estimated that without herbicides and pesticides, the global production of the world’s three most important crops—corn, rice, and wheat—would drop by 25 percent immediately. In addition, 70 million additional people would have to devote themselves to weed removal.
It sounds like a great jobs program, except that nobody wants this kind of low-tech, low-paying work—and that is especially true at a time like right now in the United States, when the labor market is about as tight as it can be. Without modern crop protection, productivity would be cut in half.
Losing crop protection tools would devastate the environment, too. Feeding a hungry planet would require more acreage—and that would mean converting millions more acres of rain forest into farmland.
An enemy such as tall waterhemp requires a different kind of solution—one that is safe to use, reliant on the best technology, and an aid to environmental conservation and biodiversity protection. And that means science-based, continually improved crop-protection products that eliminate the weeds we don’t want and encourage the growth of crops we need.
I’ve farmed for decades, and across that time I’ve seen lots of varieties of weeds come and go. They share one thing in common: They want to remove nutrients and moisture from the soil for their own purposes, robbing my crops of the resources that let them thrive.
Tall waterhemp, however, is categorically different. Five of them can sprout on a square foot of soil. They show up everywhere, from the most fertile acres of my farm to the fence lines and grassed waterways.
This particular weed was a rare sight in Iowa until recently. In the 1980s, weed scientists didn’t even list them as a problem. That began to change in the 1990s. In the last few years, they’ve really taken off. You might say they’ve grown like weeds, flourishing due to high reproductive capacity and a built-in resistance to traditional herbicides.
Suddenly, they’re everywhere—and they’re a huge problem for farmers in my area.
Right now, I’m satisfied with my ability to overcome this threat. We use effective crop-protection products on our fields, and in more sensitive areas such as waterways, we mow down tall waterhemp before it can seed and spread.
Yet it takes constant attention and a lot of work. I spend hours and days in my tractor, dealing with this specific problem.
I’m not complaining because weed control is a part of farming and this is the life I’ve chosen.
But I have a plea: Don’t take away the safe and effective tools that we need to defeat this menace. Tall waterhemp takes no prisoners.