Production Blog

The Neighborly Thing

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Our agricultural fences are in need of repair and can we do it together? (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Illinois (DTN) -- The two farmwomen lived, in the vernacular of the region, within spittin' distance of each other. The only thing that stood between their farmsteads was a couple hundred acres of crops and a fence.

These sisters of experience could have been a source of emotional support as they lived out their lives on the Illinois prairie. Yet for the decades that I knew, and loved them, they lived estranged due to a dispute over a section of fence that needed mended.

I'm reminded of this story each time I hear a tale of farm practices that pit neighbor against neighbor. In society's minds-eye, the farming culture is nearly communal in thought and purpose. However, the reality is, the profession draws independent people for a reason -- we like to do our own thing and dislike being told how or what to do. Throw money and stress into the disagreement and even the smallest of thorns can fester fast.

We are currently witnessing several disputes play out across the various cropping "belts." The issue of off-target movement of dicamba herbicide has been the most visible, and not just because of the distinctive leaf puckering that comes when the herbicide finds a sensitive target. Media coverage, lawsuits and mandatory classes on how to apply the herbicide have focused many eyes on this technology.

While there are circumstances that make the dicamba dilemma pronounced, it is certainly not unique. This spring, the state of Arkansas issued a caution advisory regarding the use of Loyant, a new auxin-based rice herbicide, based on drift injury in soybean. There are also complaints about 2,4-D use in tolerant cotton drifting onto nearby sensitive cotton in several states.

Herbicides aren't the only trespass concern either. Ironically, another neighbor-to-neighbor weed situation involves farmers who fail to control volunteer wheat with herbicides or mechanical destruction. Wheat farmers in western Kansas and parts of Oklahoma, in particular, have faced severely reduced stands due to wheat streak mosaic virus.

The virus is moved by the wheat curl mite. These mites live on volunteer wheat and rely on it as a food source. As summer moves into fall, mites move into tender, emerging wheat plants. Mites are mobile critters and it's important that volunteer wheat within a half mile radius of new plantings is controlled -- but some growers insist on grazing volunteers, which doesn't do a good enough job of control. Worse yet, others ignore the situation all together, particularly if they are rotating those fields to other crops.

And then there's pollen. This spring, DTN published stories about the need for growers to talk across the fence if they are growing Enogen hybrids, a specialty corn that contains an enzyme that helps break down starch.

That enzyme may be beneficial for ethanol plants and feedlots, but even small amounts of its pollen can contaminate white corn being grown for food uses. Growers of white corn and Enogen tend to toil in close proximity and contracts for such production generate much needed premiums.

DTN stories have featured farmers doing a good job of communicating where fields were located. But those articles were promptly followed with complaints from readers who said they do not enjoy the same neighborly relationships, despite company programs to encourage grain segregation and limit contamination. Click here to read the DTN articles: (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Historians can talk at length about range wars between sheep and cattlemen. We have seen fights over water rights and territorial disagreements over land. Will we one day look back and relive the current disputes over weed control and pollen as part of our checkered past?

I hope not, but over the past few summers, I have witnessed behaviors that have tugged at my own beliefs about agriculture's ability to resolve these differences. I personally know farming neighbors that have known each other their entire lives that are now warring over weed control practices. This year, we have seen personal and legal attacks on university scientists by industry.

Lately, I have been informally asking farmers if we might find community approaches to address some of these property rights issues. Would it be possible to arrange crops in such a way that injury or contamination is minimized?

This is not the way companies prefer to take technologies to market. It would require more local decision-making and enforcement, which adds stress to an already frayed infrastructure. With larger farms and rental acres, do we even know our neighbors?

History provides us a few clues as to how such efforts have been used in the past. Peter Ellsworth, a University of Arizona entomologist, has been involved in large-scale community-wide programs targeting whiteflies in cotton, for example.

"In the late 1990s, we recognized that many insecticides were getting cross-registered to multiple crops (veggies, melons and cotton). Whitefly management across this landscape was critical and resistance management in the front of our minds. We struck cross-commodity agreements among the growers of these three crops such that they were sharing buprofezin (Applaud or Courier), a whitefly insect growth regulator. That was just the warm-up act for the real work that we did with growers to strike similar agreements for sharing the neonicotinoid class starting in 2003," Ellsworth said in email correspondence.

Find details about those efforts here: https://extension.arizona.edu/…

Since then, plantings of cotton have been arranged on the landscape to minimize losses to Lygus.

Read about that here: http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/…

Recently Adam Davis, then a USDA-ARS research ecologist and now head of University of Illinois Crop Sciences Department, suggested that area-wide neighborhood tactics might be a tool to help fight weed resistance.

You can read more about that here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/…

In his paper, Davis suggests forming weed management areas -- think drainage districts as a model. The research indicates farmers may be able to buy time, in terms of delaying herbicide resistance evolution, by switching up weed management tactics and aggregating best practices over large acreages.

In other words, his report suggests "preserving the effectiveness of existing herbicides is worth the trouble of making nice with the neighbors."

Most farmers -- all right every farmer -- I've mentioned this concept to has given me a "you've read too many books or you've lived in town too long" look. They invariably mention the one farmer that won't go along with the idea and ruin the effort for the rest.

I know I am idealistic. The farming community I cling to is the one that comes together when bad things happen.

You tell me ... can we find ways to do the neighborly thing and consider larger implications of actions? Are there ways to compromise on landscape agronomic issues? Can we at least have some civil conversations without cowering behind the convenience of doing what is simply the easy thing?

It seems that until we begin to mend some social fences in farm country, that one entity (whomever or whatever it is) that everyone assumes won't go along is dictating actions anyway.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

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