Growing up, I was my father’s main weapon against weeds, particularly in soybeans. Miles and miles of soybean rows flowed underfoot. Uncountable thousands of weeds fell under blows from a hoe or a jerk of the weed hook. And after some long drinks of real lemonade from an old metal Thermos, a clean field was a badge of hard work.
Then in the late 1960s, herbicides arrived on Rural Route 1, and the anti-weed weapons were retired, in some respect. But that was a gradual process as learning the timing and application rates were a work in progress. And in the mid-1990s, when Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans to complement its glyphosate herbicide, soybean fields were clean for nearly a decade and a half, until weed resistance defeated technology.
As a result, soybean fields will have visible weeds. Weeds in corn are either shaded out or hidden by the taller vegetation, but soybean fields will remain the barometer of weed control. And agriculture may have to reset the “normal” indicator on the barometer. That will be a psychological nightmare to older farmers, and particularly to non-farming land owners. And it may be a welcome relief to the younger farming generation, which has neither the technology for a killing spray on every weed, nor the time to walk every row of thousands of acres of soybeans.
The times are changing, and this year’s experiment with a new generation of dicamba herbicide and dicamba-resistant soybeans may become a major step in that change. While companies such as Monsanto, BASF, and DowDuPont invested hundreds of millions of dollars to promote and market their new formulations, there is a chance that the two-year experiment will be unplugged by the EPA after the 2018 growing season. That depends on whether corporate damage control can outweigh farmers and university-based weed scientists, who have totally different viewpoints on how to resolve the non-target spray drift issues.
If Monsanto’s XtendiMax, BASF’s Engenia, and DowDuPont’s FeXapan become a footnote in the annals of the Weed Science Society of America, it will be seen as one last gasp in an expensive attempt to retain weed-free soybean fields as the standard of American Agriculture. If the experiment fails, Corn Belt farmers will revert to other strategies for fighting yield-reducing weeds. After all, who wants to spend money on crop nutrients and have weeds steal the food from the cash crop, along with whatever moisture may happen to land in that field?
But those other strategies may end up leaving a weed or two here or there. Our nearly total reliance on glyphosate for the past two decades has shown that weeds have the innate ability to re-engineer themselves genetically to survive. Charles Darwin still lives in weedy soybean fields.
In addition to weeds becoming resistant to even high-priced herbicides, the demand for lower-priced food is forcing the hand of farmers to focus on efficiency with crop budgets in mind. University of Illinois ecologist Adam Davis and an Arizona colleague believe we have reached a critical tipping point in our ability to control weeds with the herbicides currently on the market. Davis said, “I think the future of cheap food is strongly related to the availability and effectiveness of existing herbicides.”
Davis added, “If we fully lost chemical control of certain weeds, and if farmers continued with the corn-soybean rotation, they’d be forced to reduce their acreages as they spend more time and money managing weeds. And the cost of the end product, our food, would go up as well.”
Davis and his colleague suggest that herbicide susceptibility in weeds should have been viewed as a finite resource all along, like the global oil supply. As resources start to dwindle, prices should theoretically go up as a way to prevent overuse and total resource exhaustion. But unlike oil, herbicide prices have actually decreased over the past 30 to 40 years.
In the case of Tordon, Dad paid $64 for a quart bottle in 1965, and today it is available from a Walmart on-line distributor for just $24.51. So Davis’ contention of herbicide prices going down is quite true, since today’s price also includes 50 years of monetary inflation. A never-ending battle.