Wednesday, May 17, 2017


One of the more bitter accusations between warring grain ranchers is that one of them doesn’t clean the weed seeds out of his seed grain.  Obviously this messes up the harvest in several ways:  by stealing nutrition from the grain, by jamming harvest machinery, and by forcing the necessity of the “clean” guy to clean his own crop or be penalized when selling.  It’s enough to make a guy grind his teeth.  Unless s/he has a weed seed pulverizing machine like (ta-dah) the Harrington Seed Destructor!  file:///Users/maryscriver/Downloads/%20Harrington%20Seed%20Destructor..html.  

“. . . left unchecked, weeds would cost an estimated $43 billion in lost soy and corn production alone in the United States and Canada each year.

To fight back, most farmers have two main choices, at least for now: rip the weeds from the ground by hand or by plow, or spray them with chemical herbicides so they wither and die. But these choices have long presented a paradox. Tilling can control weeds, but it also can disrupt and degrade the soil — and poor soil grows poor crops. Herbicides, on the other hand, are easier to use — just point and spray — and they can preserve the soil’s delicate structure. But just like bacteria exposed to too many antibiotics, weeds confronted by years of herbicide spraying can give rise to resistant varieties that are increasingly hard and expensive to kill.” 

“Every farmer needs to be thinking about how to do this now,” Davis says. “There is no path forward for chemical-alone weed management. We have to reduce our reliance on herbicides because there’s nothing new in the pipeline.”

And then there are the claims that weed killers kill people, too.  In Valier fields killed with glyphosate are planted right up to the boundary streets and the frequent winds carry the dust through town.  As far as I know, no one has done a study of cancer rates in town.

“Harrington decided the best option to fight the seeds was to catch and destroy them before the combine expels its chaff. He considered his options, which he now calls the Big C Project. The C stood for chaff, as well as what he planned to do with it: catch it, cart it, crush it, cook it, or cremate it.

“Existing technology addressed some Cs already. Chaff carts, for example, tow behind combines to collect plant waste, which farmers burn or feed to livestock. Then there’s narrow windrow burning, where combines drop chaff in long, concentrated piles that are easy to cremate. After mulling the possibilities, Harrington decided to try something new: catch and crush.”

When combines go into the fields, they cut the grain, separate it into bin to be emptied into a truck bed, and blow the rest of the stuff (chaff) out the side to spread it out across the soil.  The trouble is that the seeds go along for the ride, a very efficient way to achieve THEIR goals instead of the rancher’s intentions.  Harrington’s machine, which was attached as a trailer,  gathered and smashed the seeds so flat they couldn’t function, no longer fertile.  

Later versions were installed right in the combine.  That was more convenient, but it also means that a group of ranchers couldn’t go together to buy the trailer and share it.  The other factor is that the new versions are being invented in Australia faster than they can be bought in the US and faster than the American mechanics can figure out how to maintain and repair the technology.  It will take a little time for all the factors, include the financing, to be worked out.  

Ranchers are used to all this stuff.  That’s why they have to be smart and plugged into the information systems.  When they are spotted in cafés, hunched over their coffee mugs, it’s likely they are making consultations with each other.  Friendship networks are important to ag businesses, which is an advantage for family operations.  They are one of the functions of small hub towns where the cafés, churches and sports events offer chances to get together.  Regardless of what formal cooperatives are formed, the many small acts of cooperation are the DNA of ranching, whether grain or livestock.

As technology extends biological understanding out across the continents and around the planet, we begin to understand how much one life form is affected by all the others, because the essential ecology can be deformed or sterilized by what happens to every other variation of life.  Resourceful people like Harrington are, working over decades to figure out how plant forms share the soil, trying always to get ahead of clever and persistent forms like palmer amaranth, they themselves create the cultural ecology and economic ecology that supports life.

Every now and then someone makes a little poetry riff about the names of grass, but I’ve never heard anyone run out the names of weeds, though they’re pretty colorful as well.  “Preliminary results suggest that the mill can destroy 99 percent of seeds from the dreaded palmer amaranth, as well as common waterhemp, common lambsquarters, giant foxtail, velvetleaf, ivyleaf morning glory, giant ragweed, and common cocklebur.”

In the quote-feed called “” which ranges from pop culture to little known history, on 5/16/17 they published.a selection from “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”, by Stephen R. Platt.  It was about the Taiping Rebellion in China between 1850 and 1864.  This was the time in the US when we were building up to the Civil War and forcing the indigenous people of the prairie onto reservations.  Here’s a three-minute review of the Taiping Rebellion:

“The most widely cited estimate of deaths in China's Taiping Rebellion is 20 million, but more recent scholarship puts that estimate as high as 70 million. The destruction to cities and farms was so pervasive that cannibalism became routine.

Famine is both a cause and a result of war and moral collapse.  These catastrophes are triggered by population that exceeds the ecology that supports it.  The signs of overpopulation are all around us now, named social weeds: hoarding of resources, ejection of others, denial of health investment, wealth owned by only a few while many live on the street, governance at odds with itself. 

The supply of food is dependent on the diligence and resourcefulness of ag people, and yet they often feel passed-over and put down.  The ideas of the Golden Triangle and the Bread Basket of the World have never been more worthy.  

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