Farmhand Diaries: To Spray, or Not to Spray

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By Stacey Warde.

For three years, I’ve managed to control the weeds on our two-acre blueberry enclosure mostly by hand, without the use of herbicides.

I’ve learned that a shovel, hoe and rake can do a lot of damage to weeds, and it’s great exercise. A mower and weed whacker come in handy too, especially when weeds get out of hand.

Until now, these tools have been effective. Lately, however, I’ve been overrun by Bermuda grass, which has been appearing in patches throughout the field.

It creeps up and around the bags, slips its claw-like rhizomes through the drainage holes, and begins to pull the plants down, or tears the bags apart.

I’ve gone into a tug-of-war with the stuff while trying to pull the plant in its bag up off the ground. The grass clings to the bottom and inside of the bags; it even tugs back as I try to pull the plants away. It’s not good for the plants, or the bags, or me.

Additionally, blueberry root systems don’t compete well with other roots seeking water and nutrients. For that reason, we keep them as free from weeds as possible. Fortunately, the bags have been excellent weed suppressors. It’s hard for most weeds to get inside the bags.

Each day, however, another plant appears to have been taken down by the Bermuda grass as it quickly spreads to other parts of the field.

I’ve scraped at the stuff with a shovel and hoe, tried smothering it with layers of cardboard, and hacked and pulled at it to no avail. It just keeps spreading.

Lawn owners would probably be happy with how this grass spreads, and indeed it might look pretty after a good mowing but it’s become a total nuisance at the farm.

It’s time to spray. This has been a difficult decision. While detesting all chemical inputs that deplete the soil, I’ve found that in dire circumstances it can become necessary to take a “slash and burn” approach.

I first learned this while attempting to eradicate Cape ivy, also known as German ivy, from my backyard. Cape ivy is an invasive vine that has wreaked havoc along some of California’s riparian corridors, taking down native trees. No matter how I tried to get rid of it, little pieces of it kept popping up everywhere.

I researched the most effective methods for eliminating the aggressive ivy and the conclusion in most reports seemed to be that the only way to do it effectively was to spray with Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup®.

Fortunately, with help from a neighbor, I finally managed to get rid of the ivy without taking any drastic measures.

Now, it appears, I’m faced with a similar dilemma. Most conventional farmers wouldn’t give spraying Roundup®, popular in both agricultural and home-garden use, a second thought. It’s relatively cheap, effective and, according to the EPA, impacts on the environment are much less harmful than other herbicides.

One landscaper friend told me: “Roundup® is a landscaper’s best friend. When nothing else works, Roundup® will.”

The farmer next to us sprays his orange orchards with the herbicide. It smells bad and acts quickly but doesn’t affect the trees. Yet, I wonder: What are its impacts?

The data, depending on who’s offering it, can be contradictory. Monsanto, and farmers who use its products, argue that Roundup® weed killer is completely safe and does not affect the environment the way previous generations of herbicides have.

Organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association, however, say just the opposite: “Monsanto’s advertising campaigns have convinced many people that Roundup® is safe, but the facts just don’t support this. Independent scientific studies have shown that Roundup® is toxic to earthworms, beneficial insects, birds and mammals, plus it destroys the vegetation on which they depend for food and shelter.”

I can’t bear the thought, silly as it might seem to some farmers, of destroying or potentially harming the microbial life of the soil as well as neighboring insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. I keep worms at home to eat my organic scraps and they give me nutrient-rich castings and tea for my plants.

The thought of putting poison on them, or on any of the beneficial critters that frequent the field, makes me feel uneasy. While pulling back the grass to get a closer look, for example, I spotted a frog and a lizard scooting to get away from me. How could I spray poison here?

In my own circle of friends who grow organically, I’ve heard many negative remarks about Roundup® and about the company that produces it. “It’s the devil’s juice,” said one, a landscaper who builds food forests into his landscapes so that customers can enjoy healthy organic fruit trees and vines in their home gardens.

I asked him what were the long-term effects of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, and he said: “It depletes the soil and shrinks your testicles.” (A study is alleged to have shown that rabbits exposed to glyphosate saw a 50 percent reduction in sperm production.)

Many green advocates and organic farmers view Monsanto, which began marketing its popular weed killer in the 1970s, as a devil-like incarnation of pure greed, which is attempting to consolidate and control the world food market by patenting genetically altered plants and seeds.

Any purchase from that company, I’ve been told, is a flat out bargain with the devil. I’m between a rock and a hard place.

I want to argue that in this case, which could become extreme if I don’t get a handle on it quickly, a bargain with the devil is better than partial or total crop loss due to invasive weeds.

The alternative, however, isn’t much better. Organic herbicides don’t always work as effectively as nonorganic. In a paper, “Weed Management for Organic Crops,” published by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the authors conclude: “Currently, the efficacy in these organically acceptable herbicides is marginal at best.”

I’m not a purist in the strictest sense of the word; I try to be practical and make decisions that will do the least harm to the environment. Yet, and I know this is true for farmers of all stripes, when pests, disease or weeds become a threat to our crops, or our livelihoods, we’ll do whatever it takes to protect our investment.

Shall I use Roundup® or an organic alternative? I have to do something quickly, time is running out as the grass begins to spread.

When another friend discovered that I had been considering selectively and carefully spraying limited amounts of Roundup® into patches of the Bermuda grass growing in our field, he said: “If you spray Roundup® on your plants, I won’t eat your berries.”

I won’t be spraying the plants. They, too, of course, would die. Yet, I hate to lose a customer.

I’ve given this one potential buyer’s concern some thought. Instead of diving fully into a potentially “devilish” bargain, I’ve decided to compare the results of a popular non-toxic spray made from plant oils that is supposed to be safe for animals and plants with tests of Roundup® on the noxious weed.

We’ll see which works best. I know that it’s not an ideal solution, but it’s also no longer possible to manage the Bermuda grass by hand. All of this, of course, gets back to the bottom line of how we manage our fields. Well-managed fields, it’s said, don’t have problems with weeds.

Up to this point, we’ve done OK. We’ve had our share of weeds but none that couldn’t be managed by hand.

If I had my way, I’d put our blueberry plants into the ground and follow the no-till philosophy of Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, author of “The One-Straw Revolution,” who argues that nature is the best teacher for learning how to grow food and how to keep everything, including weeds and pests, in balance.

In a balanced system, Fukuoka argues, chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides become totally unnecessary.

We can avoid the ruin of good soil and earth by eliminating disruptive chemical inputs, he says. In fact, the soil, he argues, is best left alone, not even tilled. There are better, healthier and more effective farming methods, he adds, but most modern farmers are stuck, conditioned by an industrial approach to farming that requires a heavy hand and heavy chemical inputs.

Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he tends a two-acre container farm of blueberries not far from scenic coastal Highway 1. He has received numerous awards for his writing and is a former publisher of the literary magazine, The Rogue Voice.

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