If there’s one thing I’ve learned by talking with farmers, it’s that they have a great sense and appreciation of their farm’s history. And as a result, they have an even greater sense of how the present state of farming is better than it used to be.
Marvin Borg and Jeffrey Larson are two examples of that. Mention “weeds” and they both have stories that would make suburbanites happy that all they have to tend to is Saturday yard work.
“When I was young growing up on the farm, prior to herbicides, we used to walk the fields and pull weeds. One of the worst jobs ever,” said Larson, who farms corn and soybeans in west central Minnesota. His family farm turns 136 years old later this month (the homestead proclamation from President Ulysses S. Grant still hangs on the wall in his home). “It was the worst day when our grandfather would pull up in the truck and say, ‘We’ve got weeds to pull.’ We’d walk through grain fields pulling mustard.”
Without crop protection methods, weeds grow among crops. The weeds and crops compete for light, water and nutrients. And during harvest, weeds can wreck a combine or at least slow progress in the field. To minimize weeds, farmers and families pull weeds by hand or till the soil several times before planting.
The development of crop protection chemicals, like Roundup®, has changed farming for the better, Borg said.
“Farming has really changed. We virtually wore out the soil from all the tillage because we didn’t have other ways of controlling the weeds,” said Borg, who farms in Nebraska with his sons and their families. His family farm turned 126 years old on Feb. 28. “2,4-D came along and that was a big help. One of the farms that my dad bought was virtually covered with creeping jennies. We walked from one of the farm to other and never stepped off a creeping jenny patch. Right now, I don’t think you can find a plant of it in the field. You might along the creek. We just eliminated the problem.”
Larson said crop protection and biotech crops, like Roundup Ready® soybeans, which allow the soybeans to survive an application of glyphosate, have helped his farm reduce its fuel consumption.
“One thing that Roundup and biotech crops have given us is the ability for lot fewer passes across the field,” he said. “Our crops don’t compete with weeds. We only do one tillage pass in the fall, and one in the spring. It has eliminated a lot of trips across field, saving fuel, time and erosion.”
Erosion is the biggest difference Borg has seen on his farm. The 80-year-old farmer said he believes his family was one of the first in the area to adopt no-till farming—the practice of leaving crop residue on the soil and not running a tractor over the soil to turn it up. That was nearly 50 years ago.
“As weed chemicals came along, it became an advantage to control the weeds in the no-till fields,” Borg said. “I do know a couple fields in particular that were, well, the neighbors would call virtually worthless. They called it ‘The Great American Cat Box’ because the dirt would blow everywhere. When we started leaving residue on the top, that halted the problem.
“I can see we’re really holding the moisture a whole lot better than we used to do. We used to waste a lot of moisture.”
Larson said he has two pieces of farm equipment in his shed that would be considered relics now thanks to biotech and crop protection: the moldboard plow and his “Smucker Super Sponge Weed Wiper.” And yes, with a name like that, I’ll let Larson explain that one:
“The Weed Wiper would hold a 10 gallon tank of Roundup mix, and you could adjust it from six and a half inches to two and a half feet off the ground. There was a big sponge with lines feeding a 10 foot section that would get the Roundup to point of dripping. We had different weeds to control—milkweed and Canadian thistle. Milkweed was waxy on top, and the herbicide would run off it. The underside is more vulnerable, and it was a very effective tool to get to the underside. And farmers didn’t have any exposure to applicators. But now, that tool is in the shed because of biotech crops.”
The moldboard plow is one tool that’s no longer used either on Larson’s farm.
“We’re all minimal till farmers now,” Larson said. “I can’t tell you the last time a moldboard plow has been across our field. Long ago, my grandfather would dig the field, let the weeds pop up, do it again, then disk it and then plant. It was a constant battle to keep control of the weeds. They’re a lot tougher than the crops. Roundup and biotechnology has truly changed way we farm, both in effectiveness and fewer costs.”
As new farming practices and technologies come along (such as crop protection, no-till, biotech, etc.), farmers like the Borgs and Larsons adapt to improve and sustain their farms’ operations. Adapting is a key reason why each farm has been in operation for more than 125 years. And when the next breakthrough or technique arrives, the Borg and Larson ancestors and other farmers might look back on the early 2000s with the same feelings as their fathers did for the 1950s: thank God we don’t do it that way anymore.