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Photo by Bill O'Connell
Photo by Bill O'Connell

Pestilence from Heaven: One Farmer’s Organic Story

I know, some people think farming is dull.

I’ve been there myself, endlessly plowing below the rimrocks northeast of Cut Bank without another human in sight. Farming had gone from homesteaders with horses to Big Bud, and the only thing that hadn’t changed was the operator’s glazed expression at the end of the day.

Lately though, it’s just not dull at all. It’s one surprise after another, at least here on the Rockpile Ranch. Against all odds, we find ourselves farming again in the Bozone, although not your typical “Valley of the Flowers” utopia. Four years ago we assumed a lease on quite possibly the rockiest, most depleted farm in the headwaters. Except for my lifelong failing for horses and their required pasture, a sound mind wouldn’t have taken it on with strictly farming in mind.

These things work in mysterious ways, though.

About a year into it, I decided I had little to lose and possibly a good bit to gain by going organic. Yet another rash decision? Perhaps, but maybe not as I’d already done the alternative; chemical no-till farming before it was… Well, I’m not sure it ever was cool.

More than that, I’d lost faith. I know, better living through chemistry, and if I get sick I don’t think I’ll sit around and chant, but in landscape terms Aldo Leopold was right about a whole lot more than just wildlife when he wrote about the Matrix, how everything is interrelated and you don’t just throw a big rock into the pond (or remove one) without ripples.

Plus I’d seen weeds develop herbicide resistance in a biological blink. In the span of about five years, we’d seen cheatgrass and kochia adapt astoundingly. Of course it was years later I learned Monsanto makes more from selling tightly controlled GMO seed than they do from herbicides! Although now many weed killers have tripled in price, so who knows…?

Who cares, says part of me. We’ve gone to legume rotations, interseeding red clover and plowing down lentils for a nitrogen boost. Plus now I know they’re right about camelina growing on poor ground with minimal inputs, not to mention its weed competition capabilities. Our golden flax is going over grrreat, and even wheat and barley just might be in for one of those widely spaced periods of prosperity, unless of course your inputs have tripled.

Organic certification requires three years of no synthetic chemical usage, and we’re at that point this year. Lots of conventional farmers I know sort of scoff at “newfound” organics like me. In fact I’ve had them go downright hostile in a couple of rare instances. And yeah, I know, three years isn’t squat, so we’ll see. It says right in the Bible something about “ye shall fight them with the sweat of your brow FOREVER”, though. It’s very clear about that, and I think they may be right, Monsanto or no. Once you get used to that idea it’s easier somehow.

In any case, this newfound “faith” of mine was sorely tested recently. We’d just picked up some more ground, the neighboring Saddle Peak Ranch homeowner association who agree with my ag prognosis on their open space, a couple hundred acres worth. They’re less excited about the organic aspects because, well… they don’t want a big weed wreck.

Neither do I. So, I actually dug out the sprayer and put it on.

Possibly because it’s an oddball one-of-a-kind I’d never gotten rid of the thing. Well, actually former Rockpile Rancher Cliff Lincoln used it the last couple of years before he died in a plane crash, and I sprayed part of the place the first year we had it, but it’s been parked since.

I trust it’s not just farmers who might see the bit of baggage invested in this inanimate object. I designed and built it back in the day to make use of new products that just might save me untold hours of stultifying tractor time, not to mention substantial moisture, and that was before $4 diesel. No, this was back in the late eighties when it had already stopped raining for six years or so. If I had back all the money I poured through that rig, I could buy… more all the time.

Meanwhile on the Rockpile Ranch the weeds are flourishing. Fortunately so are the crops, or at least as much as can be expected in the early stages of replenishment. But still, it’s always the field along the road that has a truly alarming assortment of these prophesied pests in with the barley and flax. Experience says to spray.

This is not nearly as easy of decision as it used to be, though. In fact in this case I’d say it approached agonizing. We’re eligible for organic certification, although I’m holding off for now. Bill Gates and I do the bookwork around here, and adding another substantial layer of documentation doesn’t excite. Plus I know people who participate that aren’t that keen on some aspects, and I’m listening to my internal sense of timing. Still, we almost certainly will get organic certification at some point and the opportunity to do so is something I won’t discard with impunity.

Far from it! I was certainly tossing and turning, and not quite to wailing and gnashing but had gone so far as researching a herbicide that might nail our lambsquarter and pigweed without hurting the clover I’d interseeded. In fact it took a few calls to track some down, and I’d almost run into Belgrade to pick it up but decided to finish a last few tweaks on the sprayer instead.

I was regrettably, mostly resigned to this dilemma due to a few Canada thistle patches that had appeared to thwart me, also predictably right along the road, this time the one into the neighboring Running Elk Ranch, a billionaire’s retreat where cost is no object. That may be moot; it wouldn’t matter if it was the Clampetts across the fence, you don’t let noxious weeds go untended in Montana. So last summer I’d faithfully plowed them on the recommended 21-day intervals (or very nearly so). First time over this spring they appeared vanquished but a couple weeks later when I seeded a few had emerged, and were soon joined by kin, blast the luck!

Curtail herbicide pretty well does the number on Canada thistle, in fact I’d had misgivings about whether I should have curtailed things before swearing abstinence. It appeared this decision had resurfaced, but through procrastination or providence I decided to finish those last few tweaks on the sprayer before making a herbicide run. Of course those repairs did not go according to schedule either, and when I found myself temporarily stymied with electrical problems I decided to go assess the situation one more time.

I have to say it was quite possibly the most exciting weed walk I’ve ever been on! My old air seeder lays down a pretty dense stand, the barley had canopied and just flat out-competed its unwelcome companions. I’d plowed twice this spring, so the remaining weeds were just tiny little seedlings (albeit vast numbers of them) but they were toast. Literally withered and brown, you’d swear they’d been sprayed!

I was all but turning cartwheels across the field, but figured I’d better go have a look at the Canada thistle conflagration too.

I’ve heard of plagues of locusts, but my thistles had been smote with a staggering infestation of little crawlers, black and gold buggers about three-quarters to an inch long, that had turned all the thistles in sight into a huge incubator/nursery. I’d never seen the like, the plants were literally chewed to bits, with the remainder covered in webs literally erupting with more crawlers. A quick call to the County Agent revealed these are the very appropriately named Painted Lady butterfly larva, my new favorite bug.

Who wouldn’t like a painted lady named vanessa cardui, especially when you learn it means thistle in Latin! Like most divas (ordinarily best avoided), they’re not completely reliable and only show in these numbers once or twice a decade, but we’ll take it as it comes. They appear to be quite widespread around the Gallatin this year, as my second post-discovery phone call was to fellow organic and oilpress partner Brian Goldhahn who’d found them in his thistles about a week prior. In fact he was out scouting right then also and reported some of his thistle patches were literally devoured. Gone.

My ladies must be a bit more restrained, but I’ll mow anything they missed, and if this luck continues we’ll combine those fields in a few weeks, chopping off any survivors before they make seed, and the cycle begins anew. Forever, one hopes.

We may have crossed another divide in this little saga, and going back will be even harder now. We’ll see, and I bet it won’t be dull, painted ladies or otherwise.

Bill O’Connell farms near Bozeman. Read more from bill at www.cowboyhvn.com.

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6 comments

  1. Great read Bill. It’s great to know more and more farmers are doing this. And farming is cool, far as I’m concerned!

    Have high food prices (and plenty of rain) offset high fuel costs for Montana farmers at all this year?

  2. Dennis Norman Hatfield

    God is great !
    Now if you will allow your fields to rest one year out of seven, plant but do not harvest, you will then get an over abundance of crops !

    Good job.

    Trust God and reap the rewards of doing things God’s way.

  3. Thanks, David.

    Everybody’s case is a little different, but I saw an estimate a while back, that the breakeven price for conventionally farmed wheat was over $8 bushel. It’s uncanny how quickly fuel & fertilizer, etc. adjusted to the new higher prices. I know, it’s not that simple, although in some cases it might be.

    By next year I hope to be burning primarily biofuel, and if you get your nitrogen out of the air it just might pencil nicely. Or not. It’s hard to put a number to until it’s in the bin, so to speak. Maybe this week…

  4. Dennis Norman Hatfield

    I was wrong (a little), do nothing to the land on the seventh year ! “Let the land rest, one year !”

  5. I dont think my post worked the first time around so I’ll try again.
    I wanna let you know the Nez Perce have a biocontrol agency that’ll mail you some critters to control some of yer weeds. Good people, if you google the biocontrol center, it should show up towards the end of the first results page.

  6. Thanks Justin, I’ll check that out.