Farmhand Diaries: Weed Control and Sprays Revisited

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As I scrape my shovel into the mass of weeds rising up and around our grow bags, I see earthworms slither away from exposure to sun and burrow down deeper into the wet earth.

The soil contains life, lots of it. Some you can see, some you can’t. At the simplest level, we know that healthy soil is key to growing healthy crops. Even a small handful of healthy soil is packed with billions of microorganisms, some that we know little or nothing about, that make plant life possible.

I love the sweet-smelling aroma of moist soil rich in microorganisms and nutrients. It’s a fragrance that is fecund, teeming with life, not foul and devoid of life. The soil that works best for me smells like a rose when I put it to my nose.

Bees and butterflies arrive with the warm sun. Ladybugs crawl up and down the stems of our blueberry plants, which have begun to produce a fine array of blossoms, the promise of a fruitful harvest, which will begin in earnest in late April.

Spiders creep along the ground and form webs in the leaves.

On warmer days, even during winter, an occasional lizard or snake will slip away into the weeds that seem to grow inches every day. Frogs croak from their hiding places throughout the field.

Birds, which can be a berry grower’s nightmare, also alight in the field, foraging for worms and seeds; no berries yet.

The ranch dog, the sweetest pit bull I’ve ever met, which lives near the blueberry patch, arrives each day to visit and spend time with me in the field; he sniffs the ground for squirrels and gophers, growls at the cattle lumbering in the hills nearby.

He chews grass and sticks his muzzle into the burrows made by underground critters, getting his nose full of dirt, sometimes pulling up a prize. He hangs with me as I weed and prune.

Or he runs off to sniff about, covering a lot of ground, including the test plots where I have sprayed organic and non-organic herbicides.

Our small two-acre enclosure teems with an entire universe of life, except for the small patch of grass where I test-sprayed Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup®.

My neck and shoulders ache from shoveling away the weeds that grow between the bags. It would be so much easier to spray the entire area with an herbicide and be done with it. But I can’t do it.

I’ve thought about it and even felt good at one point spraying a square patch of bermuda grass, one of the most difficult weeds to control by hand, to test-drive Monsanto’s popular weed killer.

In another area of the field, I tested an organic spray, Burnout®, in a different square patch of bermuda grass.

In earlier entry, “To spray or not to spray,” I indicated an interest to find an efficient method for controlling weeds.

I had by then wearied of the constant rush to control the weeds by hand, mostly with shovel and mower. The weed-whacker works fine along the edges of the field but not so well between the bags, which tend to get sliced too easily from proximity to the cutting edge of the weeder.

So I’ve had to manage the weeds between the bags pulling them up by hand, which is easy to do when the soil is moist and the weeds haven’t rooted. The problem is that by the time I get to the weeds at the other end of the field, they’ve rooted and become more difficult to pull.

That’s when I use the shovel, which is fine until the neck and shoulders start to hurt, which is what originally got me thinking about sprays.

The results of my test plots were crystal clear: Roundup® effectively killed the weeds while the organic Burnout® didn’t perform so well. In fact, Monsanto’s herbicide worked so well there’s nothing but a dry patch of weeds and dirt remaining.

It unnerves me to look at it, a small square brown patch of dead grass surrounded by a sea of green that didn’t get sprayed. I don’t see any insects or worms crawling in the brown patch. It’s a dead zone.

Hundreds of studies have been conducted on Monsanto’s Roundup® and on specific ingredients in the mix. The reports vary from benign to dangerous impacts on the environment and aquatic life forms.

The EPA estimates that 100 million pounds of Roundup® are used each year in farming and home use applications. That’s a lot of stuff getting tossed into our fields and yards, and draining into ponds, streams and rivers.

Studies on the toxic impacts of Roundup® have shown harm to worms, amphibious creatures, fish and a recent study even suggests harm to “human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.”

The glyphosate in Roundup® helps to break down a plant’s enzyme system, attacks and eventually kills the entire plant. The weed killer works beautifully but does not discriminate; thus great care must be used to avoid contaminating the blueberry plants.

Environmental impacts from glyphosate have been the depletion of habitat for birds, and the die-back of trees. Glyphosate alone reportedly has low toxicity in the environment, but the surfacants used to penetrate the skin and membranes of a plant so the glyphosate can do its job are more toxic to animal life.

According to a 2009 report in Scientific American, “Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells,” researchers claim that “Roundup contains an ingredient that can suffocate human cells.”

The surfacant “polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself—a finding the researchers call ‘astonishing,’” the article states, referring to a study led by Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen in France.

Inert ingredients in Roundup “amplify the effects of active ingredients by helping them penetrate clothing, protective equipment and cell membranes, or by increasing their toxicity.”

The argument in defense of the use of weed killers such as Roundup® is that when used properly no harm will be done. Looking at my little dead zone, I doubt that.

Not long after I sprayed my test plot several weeks ago, Zsu Zsi’s young son had come out to help us work in the field and asked: “What’s the horrible smell?”

“Does it smell like burnt oil?” I asked.

“Yeah! What is it?”

“It’s my test plot,” I told him. “I sprayed weed killer.”

“Yuck!”

I have to agree with him. I’d rather control these weeds without the spray. It’s not worth it to me to risk the life teeming in this field. I don’t want to worry about my friend the ranch dog, or wonder if the snakes, lizards, worms and bees will be at risk.

I’ll find another method that works. I’d rather have the fragrance of rose-smelling soil than a patch of dead weeds that smell like burnt oil.

Besides, I like looking under the leaves and watching the worms tuck themselves away deeper into the rich soil we’ve building around our blueberry plants.

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