St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Last Roundup

Alfalfa plants thrive where nothing else but sagebrush lives

The Last Roundup

As we arrived in lush Seattle, where the streets are lined with peach and pear trees, the wild blackberries grow in every ditch with 2-inch diameter fruit, and everything is shockingly green after the long drive across the dry western prairies; the yards and town squares beautifully flower-spersed with plants that would have long ago been eaten by deer or bugs in Wisconsin; we are in the land where window screens and air conditioners are unknown.

Seattle certainly outdoes Cushing for number of attractions, however, I will miss this Saturday’s adult soapbox derby there down mainstreet. Seattle has better hills for it, but not the attitude!

We brought along a case of syrup, 10 pounds of Burnett Dairy cheese, and some homemade raspberry jelly as gifts from Wisconsin to our cousins who only remember Wisconsin through stories from their parents and grandparents (i.e. the year the rutabagas failed in Cumberland; the Cushing marsh mosquito plague of 1939; the dry years in the Great Depression drought when the Holsteins were so thin that it took two to make a shadow, etc.—funny how adversity stories persist longer than any others).

We managed to get out to Seattle without any car trouble at all with the 1991 Olds. It is just about ready to turn over 100,000 miles and came from Margo’s Aunt Lou as a final gift as she made her own final trip. The Olds sailed flawlessly through the hot Dakota prairies, climbed energetically into the Big Horns where Custer made his last stand, cruised through Montana roads where “prudent speeds” are the limit and intersections along the roads littered with flowered crosses representing deaths of folks who thought they could make it across before the next car cruising at 95 got there, and then zoomed up the Cascades without even shifting the V-6 down from overdrive and finally veered through the switchbacks coasting down to the end of the U.S. of A.

Gas price ranged from $3.57 to $3.99 with the average about $3.75. Here in Seattle, it is $3.85. Overall, the Olds made about 28 mpg with spurts of 30 on the plains with a tailwind. I changed the oil (synthetic for better mileage), aired the tires to 32, and put in a new air cleaner before hitting the road. The engine control module (computer) that I replaced seems to work perfectly. The GPS only led us astray half a dozen times as we wandered the back roads seeking adventure—only to end at closed gates private road signs; the GPS egging us on; Margo worrying about crazy westerners and their gun racks in the back window of their pickups, and the Rambler ready for adventure, duct tape at the ready to patch the oil pan.

We kept costs low by tenting and sandwiching our way through the West. Our 40 year old tent is still sound; the cots we bought last year comfortable and high enough so the rattlers sleep under them; and with the screened windows, we managed to see many falling stars from the ongoing meteor shower last week though the cloudless western skies.

The trip across country was consistent in one thing—everyplace from SD north has had a wet late spring and relatively wet summer so far with a two weeks delay in everything growing from apples to wheat. Most of the northern midlands have been hot and humid too. The Missouri River Valley flooded extensively due to the huge snowfall in the mountains melting and coming down the river, and water is still high in the rivers out here.

The woman stopping traffic on Hwy 12 for construction waits of ten minutes, told us about the nearby windmill farm, one of dozens we saw beginning just west of Rochester, MN. “Most of them aren’t running now, too much water going through the power dams out here from the big melt in the mountains. Water generated electricity is cheaper than wind. Did you know that inside each of the huge towers is a 374 step circular staircase to the top? Some people complain about the swishing sounds, but I think they are good for the future.”

I mentioned we were retired, and not in a rush so the highway construction delay didn’t bother us. “I should be retired too,” she replied, “our ranch went bankrupt a few years ago after the drought. Started in 2002 and lasted seven years out here. We raised riding bulls for the rodeo. The water ponds went down and the bulls died from the water. We didn’t know then, but the drought concentrated the salt and it killed our stock and we had to sell out. It is easy to get a job out here with all the oil work and such, but there is a lot of unemployment too. Too many of the younger folks don’t pass the drug tests and can’t get hired. Gets on their record and they can’t find a job.”

Generally speaking, the crops we saw looked good. Corn and beans dominated through Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. Winter wheat farther west is being harvested and looked good. Sunflowers were beautiful and healthy. Many fields had bare areas, drowned out due to the extra water. Although there is a drought to the south, the northern 1/3 of the country seems to have good crops.

We stopped in a small café midway through Montana. The parking lot was littered with battered pickup trucks so we knew it was a hangout for local ranchers. As we drank strong coffee and waited for ranch style eggs (everything thrown in with the eggs from restaurant leftovers for the past week) we listened to the conversation at the nearby extended old guys table.

“I miss the big roundups of the old days,” said a weather beaten lanky old fellow with well worn cowboy boots, cigarette yellowed teeth and a sweat stained Stetson. “Nowadays we just bring alfalfa bales to the cattle—don’t drive the cattle down from the high summer range anymore. The roundup era is over.”

As a farm kid, and someone who still dabbles in farming in Wisconsin, one of the biggest changes we see now over a few decades back, are the weed-free fields along the road. In a vast 1000 acre field in the plains you can wear your eyes out looking for a single weed. In farming, the Roundup era is upon us.

This comes from the “Roundup ready” plants, beginning in the late 90s, that have dominated the past decade of farming all over the world. Monsanto, a big chemical and seed company, spliced a gene into all sorts of farm plants that makes them impervious to their herbicide, Roundup, that normally kills everything it touches. Farmers have enthusiastically adopted this technology and no longer cultivate crops to get rid of weeds. To learn more about Roundup and farming I turned to the Internet.

Wikipedia is a “grassroots” encyclopedia of the world, thus a wonderful place to turn for information on crops. It is being built by people who have expertise and are willing to share it on the Internet. Each article is submitted and then undergoes ongoing and continuous review by readers and is updated as needed. If I wanted to submit a topic, for instance, the history of Cushing, WI, I could do it, and others could review and modify it after a discussion of the changes. What makes Wikipedia work is that experts from all fields of endeavor have taken it seriously and worked to make it useful.

I looked at Roundup. There is some discussion of problems with the chemical in our environment—not at all clear what harm it might do, but the main problem is the number of weeds which are no longer killed by it, the “super weeds.”

Evolution as seen by scientists, is an ongoing process where living things adapt better to their surroundings. Every time sex occurs, potential for a new and unique combination of genes arises from male and female species (plants and animals). The offspring are very very close to the parents, but yet different in some ways. In the billions of new and slightly different pigweed seeds formed each year, a few are enough different to no longer be killed by Roundup.

Sometimes the differences are not just from normal variation, but from a mutation (an accidental change in normal genes—like a cat with an extra toe). The change, if it is inherited by the next generation and favorable for survival (i.e. an ice age starting where cats with bigger feet can hunt better), will gradually spread as it gives the plant or animal an advantage.

Already, in the US, super weeds are found in 13 states, in 63 types of weeds and are rapidly spreading, forecasting the end of Roundup as a useful weed killer, the end of the Roundup era. (Note: the exact same process is happening with antibiotics and bacteria growing into super bugs predicting the end of the antibiotic era that began in the 1940s).

Monsanto, the inventor of Roundup and Roundup ready crops (the first being soybeans released in 1996 from the Middleton WI facility), is working on plants resistant to 2,4D, an old herbicide used since the 40s. It is the broad-leafed weed and brush killer you can buy in the store. 2,4D and 2,4,5T were the two chemicals mixed 50-50 to make Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam to clear Vietcong jungle hideouts; the chemical that also ruined the health of many of my friends who were sprayed with it while in Vietnam. Replacing Roundup by 2,4D will be controversial.

Although the farmer in me admires a vast weed-free field, and the homeowner in me admires a pure grass lawn, the scientist in me worries about what is going to happen when super weeds spread. Some kind of new plant needs to be found that solves some of the problems of current farming for the future, a plant not so dependent on artificial sprays and fertilizers and genetics to survive. It got me to thinking what kind of plant it should be.

The ideal plant for farmers would be something that is a perennial (you plant it once and it continues to grow each year—like the alfalfa plant). It would, like the alfalfa plant, fix its own nitrogen from the nitrogen in the air. It would, like the alfalfa plant which can have roots as deep as 50 feet, grow a tremendously deep root system to get moisture and food from far below the soil while breaking up the hardpan that occurs when farmers plow the top 8 inches of soil. It would be, like the alfalfa plant, adapted to drought, heat, resistant to harsh winters, spring back rapidly from repeated harvestings, resistant to disease and bugs, high in protein and work as a single food source for animals providing most of its needs, competitive with weeds, harvestable in different ways (i.e. greenchop, silage, dry hay and sprouts), produce more nitrogen than it needs, thus creating fertilizer for a future crop on the same field. An ideal plant, if it is ever found, would be a great thing for farmers!

The above paean to alfalfa came about as we drove into the far western dry prairies and continued to see alfalfa fields growing in land that otherwise, without irrigation, supported only sagebrush. Alfalfa plants, with their purple to gray blooms lined the road ditches and freckled vast dry prairie fields; a crop that thrives where little else survives.

May your own taproots be deep, your resistance strong, and your tolerance great. May you thrive in adverse conditions. I like to think of these columns as helpful bacteria doing a little bit to remove fertilizer from the air and spread it about your feet, some weeks deeper than others, as we all ramble into our own last roundup, ready or not.