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    weeds in a field

    What the Weeds Are Telling Us

    In Arkansas, farmers are fighting and dying over pigweed. Are weeds just an ancient curse on humankind, or can they teach us something?

    By Ragan Sutterfield

    July 18, 2022
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    • William Collen

      Perhaps we should begin to cultivate Palmer Amaranth, instead of corn and soybeans?

    • Sam Loudeslager

      Ragan, great article. Thanks for writing it

    • Chana

      Interesting article, but I’m unclear: what exactly is Chappell doing differently? Trying to create a market for Palmer Amaranth?

    • Colette

      This was such a wonderful read. Thank you! I began reading "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmer and this article resonates with her relationship with the earth and plants. So beautiful! We should all learn to listen better to God's creation!

    Mike Wallace sat in his truck looking at his phone. It was October, the end of the farming season in the Arkansas delta. The soybeans had been harvested, pulled from the fields by combines and poured from auger tubes into the backs of trucks. They were now in barges and train cars, headed for processing into animal feeds, oils, plastics, or any of the myriad other uses for this miracle crop of the Industrial Age.

    This was the season when half a year’s labor was balanced in the books and Wallace’s accounts were coming up short. He had lost most of his crop, for the second year now, and his five-thousand-acre farm couldn’t take the hit of another season’s devastation. It wasn’t weather or soil, wind or rain that were at fault. It was a chemical, the herbicide dicamba, and Wallace blamed the man he believed had illegally applied it: Allan Curtis Jones.

    The State Plant Board, Arkansas’s agricultural arbiter in cases like this, had limited the use of dicamba to certain seasons. But farmers, resistant to the edicts of a state bureaucracy, were often willing to risk a fine. They had a bigger and far more costly challenge – Palmer amaranth – a weed that could wipe out 80 percent of their harvest.

    A plant native to the southern United States, Palmer amaranth was cultivated by the first people of the region. Its leaves, rich in vitamins, can be eaten like spinach, to which it is related. Each plant produces thousands of seeds and that is part of what makes it so potent a weed. The seeds can be used as a high-protein grain, ground to flour, or cooked like rice. Heat the dried seeds and they’ll pop like popcorn, which is one way native people enjoyed them.

    Palmer Amaranth growing in a field

    Palmer Amaranth Images courtesy of United Soybean Board

    Palmer amaranth, in all its parts, is more nutritious than soybeans and corn, and it grows far more easily. In the right conditions it can grow two to three inches in a day, and those conditions just so happen to be nearly any field in an industrial row crop farm – disturbed soils with plenty of sunlight. Palmer amaranth is a plant designed to occupy bare ground, which it does with incredible efficiency.

    Amaranth has continued its remarkable achievements as a plant by becoming one of the first RoundUp resistant “superweeds.” Though botanists had warned that this was the inevitable result of applying selective pressure (not to mention genetic drift), Palmer amaranth adapted to protect itself from Roundup, Monsanto’s brand name for the herbicide glyphosate. The solution? Genetically modified seeds combined with an even more powerful herbicide: dicamba. Monsanto genetically engineered soybean seeds to survive dicamba applications, leaving everything but the soybeans alive after a spray. Until, of course, amaranth adapts again, which it is already doing.

    Because of its chemical nature, dicamba tends to drift, especially in the hot humid air of east Arkansas. If you are one of those farmers who didn’t buy Monsanto’s seeds and your neighbor did, or you are growing a different kind of crop, a day’s wind in the wrong direction could destroy your entire harvest. State agencies stepped in and regulated the seasons and times of year dicamba could be used, but even that didn’t stop devastating drift. All too often farmers like Allen Curtis Jones sprayed illegally, out of season, anyway. So conflicts came, conflicts like the one that led Mike Wallace to sit in his truck that October day, waiting for a fight.

    When Jones arrived, according to his later testimony, Wallace attacked him. Jones pulled a revolver from his back pocket, shot Wallace seven times, and called the police as Wallace’s blood poured into the soil. It was a tragedy for that small Arkansas farming community, where a ring of tractors stood vigil around the graveyard as Mike Wallace was buried. It is a tragedy of industrial agriculture, with its ever more desperate attempts to control a depleted landscape. But the tragedy in this one community in Arkansas goes deeper, reaching to our fundamental relationship with the earth. The question at its heart is this: Is the soil just a resource to be tilled and worked, or are we called to something more, to serving and preserving the earth?

    Weeds have been an obstacle to agriculture since the moment it began. In the Hebrew Bible, in the archetypal story of the banishment of Adam – literally the humus-being – from the garden of Eden, he is told that the adamah (humus soil) is cursed because of him. To eat from the earth will be painful, a reality of hard labor, and “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen. 3:18).

    We have likely heard this story many times, and we usually take it as an explanation for why work is hard, or why farming continues to be a challenge. But perhaps there is another way to hear the lesson of this story and our situation. Maybe we shouldn’t see thorns and thistles, or Palmer amaranth, as curses born of the Fall. What if these weeds are really here to remind us of the conditions required for creation’s flourishing, or to call us back to our vocation as keepers of creation?

    Let us say what a weed is. A weed is any plant that is an obstacle to human intentions in a landscape. This definition works for thistles, and it works for Palmer amaranth; it could also go for dandelions and Japanese honeysuckle. By itself a weed is just a plant doing what plants do – growing in the little niche of creation for which they are suited. Some, like Palmer amaranth, are native plants with a long history in a place. Others, like Japanese honeysuckle, are introduced species that have become invasive. A plant becomes a weed when it gets in the way of another vision for that landscape – a garden, a lawn, a nature preserve, or a five-thousand-acre soybean field. Weeds have something to tell us in their resistance to our plans – something that, if heard, will help us nurture and nourish our life in creation. And yet all too often we don’t want to hear what they have to say.

    My own introduction to hearing weeds came from a small yellow paperback with stapled binding. The cover had an illustration of a green dandelion, mustard, and plantain with the title in a handwritten script popular in the 1970s: Weeds and What They Tell by Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer (later republished as Weeds and What They Tell Us).

    Pfeiffer was a German soil scientist and one of the pioneers of biodynamic agriculture. The book, written in the 1950s, explores a variety of common weeds and what to do about them. But unlike the industrial approach that seeks to understand weeds only to find the appropriate poison, Pfeiffer was interested in understanding their ecological function in the soil. Weeds, more often than not, are plants with a particular role in building soil and healing it. “They are witness of man’s failure to master the soil,” wrote Pfeiffer, “… they only indicate our errors and nature’s corrections.” They appear, not to be a reminder of our suffering in a post-Eden world, but to play a role in restoring the landscape or showing us where we have gone wrong.

    Until agriculture begins to work in concert with these processes, paying attention to the soil’s needs, weeds will continue to remind us to change how we treat the earth. 

    Take Palmer amaranth, also known as pigweed. It is a plant that likes disturbed soils, and industrial agriculture has given it plenty of them. I’ve driven through the delta farmland of east Arkansas and what I’ve witnessed there are ecological deserts. The soil, when not planted in a crop, is laid bare, easily eroded by wind and rain. Each season, following long-established practice, farmers disk and plow the fields – turning under the stubble and forming the land again into long furrows. Much of this process is done by machines that make quick work of the landscape: tilling, planting, and applying just the right amounts of fertilizer and pesticides.

    Ecologically, these fields are in need of healing, and plants like Palmer amaranth are made to begin that work. Amaranth is a very good nitrogen scavenger, utilizing whatever nitrogen it can leach from the soil. It doesn’t need much to grow, but with lots of spare nitrogen from fertilizers in these fields, it makes use of the extra nutrients. That is part of what makes it such a bad weed from the farmer’s perspective, but from an ecological view it is an amazing creature that can thrive in poor soils.

    Palmer Amaranth growing in a soybean field

    Palmer Amaranth growing in a soybean field

    Palmer amaranth also has a very deep taproot, like a dandelion, that can break through compacted soil, drawing nutrients up toward the surface. Most fields that have been cultivated by industrial farming equipment – all those heavy trucks and tractors – are severely compacted. Palmer amaranth is well equipped to begin loosening that soil. Allowed to flourish, it would eventually cycle annually, dying back and growing again from seed. With each generation it would be feeding the soil with the energy it draws from the sunlight. As the soil is rebuilt and the conditions for amaranth’s ideal growth are diminished, it would give way to other plants that would continue the healing process.

    Those who are having the best success with controlling Palmer amaranth aren’t those who are following the latest product lines from Monsanto (now Bayer), but those farmers who are using ecological approaches built around soil health. What Palmer amaranth is telling us is that our soil is damaged and in need of healing. Often the best way to be rid of a weed is not to kill it off, but to address the problem it is revealing.

    This line of thinking offers us a different way to hear the message of Genesis about thorns and thistles. What if we read “cursed is the ground because of you” not as a description of what God did to the soil because of human disobedience, but instead as the frank description of what happens to the soil because of human abuse? What if, like the angels standing guard with flaming swords at the edge of Eden, the thorns and thistles are agents of God sent to protect the soil from human excess?

    Wes Jackson, the pioneering plant geneticist of The Land Institute, has commented that agriculture is humanity’s original sin. Tilling has done tremendous damage to the soil and with it, our ecosystems. Whenever the soil is tilled, the subterranean community of lifeforms within it is hit with a hurricane. All the bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi that sustain and support plant growth are thrown into chaos, season after season. Weeds often help to bring them back to balance, like aid workers after a disaster. The way that creation keeps the soil healthy, building it generation after generation, is by always keeping it covered. Whenever it is laid bare, plants like Palmer amaranth fill the gaps until the soil is fertile enough for other plants to move in. Until agriculture begins to work in concert with these processes, paying attention to the soil’s needs, weeds will continue to remind us to change how we treat the earth. Will we listen?

    Weeds will continue to challenge human desires for the land, and sometimes we will have to pull a few. I work to rid my small landscape of invasives like nandina and Japanese honeysuckle, and I am tempted to agree with a farmer friend who calls Bermuda grass “the devil’s weed.” But even as I work to remove them, I have also learned to respect these plants as messengers filling an ecological role, one to which I must pay attention if I hope to bring any healing. There are others who are beginning to listen too.

    A hundred miles southwest of the community where Mike Wallace was shot, there are two brothers, Adam and Seth Chappell, dealing with Palmer amaranth in a different way. In an interview with Regenerative Agriculture podcast host John Kempf, Adam Chappell said that pigweed “was almost singlehandedly putting us into the bankruptcy category.” They were spending $100 per acre on herbicide, a cost that added up for their nearly eight thousand acres of row crops. That cost drove Chappell to search for a different way of farming. Eventually, he discovered a form of agriculture that emphasizes less tillage, ample cover crops, and a focus on soil health. Now a frequent speaker at farm conferences and the president of the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, Chappell’s journey toward regenerative agriculture all started with Palmer amaranth. On his family’s farm they still have pigweed, but it isn’t a problem that threatens to destroy their livelihood. They have given up the war and made peace with the land after listening to what this weed was telling them.

     
     
     
     

    If weeds are here to warn us of how we are living on the earth, then we should listen whether we are farmers or not. The kingdom of God, Jesus taught, is like a weed – the mustard plant. Mustards are plants that thrive in disturbed soils, have nutritious leaves and seeds, and can grow quickly with few resources. Like amaranth, they are also considered by many a weed to be rid of. Mustards are, as Pfeiffer says, “some of the most useful as well as troublesome plants.”

    Weeds remind us to join in the rhythms of creation and return to our human vocation. All too often we have worked the soil without keeping it, using the earth through extraction and exploitation rather than cultivating its wholeness. Weeds show us a different way, an alternative to our efforts at control. Look to the amaranth, how it spreads in the margins and heals the broken ground of our chemical-soaked earth! Instead of trying to form the world according to our ambitions, we must learn to work with care to serve and preserve creation.

    Contributed By RaganSutterfield Ragan Sutterfield

    Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest serving in his native Arkansas.

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