RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

One Person’s Weed is Another’s Salad

I got my 15 minutes of fame on Feb. 3 in the form of a cameo on an NPR talk show. I had thought I’d be talking about herbicide drift and the damage that poisons can do to an organic farm when a neighbor’s sprays drift our way. But, the conversation wandered, and I came on for the question something like, “How can the bigger farmers control weeds?”

My husband, bless him, says I did a credible job in answering but I felt unprepared. I did manage to say that treating all unprofitable plants as if they were weeds is wrong. We should evaluate each species. It’s possible that some weeds are good for the earth, or for butterflies, or even for the crops. They may attract bad bugs away from the crops. Or their long, weedy roots may bring nutrients to shallow-rooted crops from deep earth.

Of course, after the sign-off, I thought of answers. Handling weeds is something like handling a runny nose. Sometimes you ignore, sometimes you irrigate with salt water, sometimes you sleep it off or isolate the sniffler.

So, language has failed again. There should be no such thing as “all weeds,” just as there’s no such thing as “all humans.” Each weed (or human) is different, and each has its own character. Some are perennial and stay in one place, making it easy to cut them back several years in a row until they give up. Others are annuals and reproduce by making big seed heads once a season; and if you get those seed heads you can prevent them from spreading. Spraying the stalks and leaves — and the world — to get rid of “all weeds” should be considered hilarious. Observe them as individuals and you treat appropriately.

But the problem for farmers with huge monocultures is that all weeds are enemies if your goal is a uniform field of, say, corn or soybeans. Sometimes I hear the big guys talk about “clean beans.” That means a field bereft of life, except for the soybeans bobbing their little GMO heads.

No doubt about it, some weeds are problems for the monoculture giants. In Georgia, cotton farmers have had to hand-weed giant fields because the GMO system has failed and there are huge clusters of pigweed that do not die when sprayed. There’s a Youtube video of the process — slow bands of human weeders moving across the land. The pigweed seeds mess up the cotton harvesting equipment. It is not too dramatic to say that in the next few years we could see the end of cotton culture in America.

On my farm, we have the bad weeds but we also love the good ones. Every year, we declare war on one or two and eradicate them ... but we treat others like old friends. The procession is welcome in our farmhand salads: chickweed followed by henbit followed by dandelions. We don’t sell them, but we enjoy them on our own. Then there’s the tropical and luxuriant burdock; I love it, and sometimes pot it up like a fancy flower. When an organic inspector stopped by last summer to chat, he remarked that he never sees burdock any more ... chemicals have made it nearly extinct in Missouri.

OK ... I digress ... back to the DR Show. I was glad that a couple of callers picked up on the theme. One even mentioned edible weeds!

After the program came phone calls and e-mails from listeners to me, personally, saying thanks for speaking up. One caller from faraway Kalamazoo, Michigan said she wanted to work on our farm. She had been a landscaper and had to quit because of the chemicals. I hear that from city folks often. Overuse of chemicals is not just a farm problem.

So does any of the noise make a difference?

Clearly, yes, there is a trend against the overuse of chemicals. People, especially Moms, are figuring it out. They’re looking for the “No GMO” labels in the things they buy. And, on Jan. 30, Moms made history! A group called “Moms Across America” partnered with Organic Consumers Association and won a shareholder resolution in the Monsanto annual meeting. Their proposal, which gained an almost-unheard-of 53% of the vote, asked the Board of Directors to let shareholders nominate a Board member. Up until now, the Board members nominate each other and also elect their own CEO.

“Moms” leader Zen Honeycutt carried the banner at the meeting... she’s one to watch in this fight! Hugh Grant, CEO, has vowed that “the ink is still wet on this vote,” but no doubt he takes it seriously. Winning 53% means that the big shareholders, like Vanguard funds, must have voted with the Moms.

What does all this mean?

It means the light is shining ... on the chemical industry, the GMO seed industry, the food makers and the Moms.

Nothing but good news here, folks!

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2015

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