Second in a series on Azure Farms and organic wheat
By Bruce A. Smith
As the Azure Farms’ dispute with Sherman County, Oregon enters its second week, a respite has developed regarding the control of noxious weeds in its wheat fields. Azure, the worlds’ largest supplier of organic wheat, has submitted a more detailed, substantive plan to control weeds on its Moro, Oregon properties. In turn, Sherman County has shared publicly the specifics of the complaints against Azure. All parties are pledging cooperation, good faith, and hope in a successful resolution that can avoid the application of toxic chemical herbicides like Roundup or Milestone on Azure’s organic farmlands.
To begin, Sherman County has identified the species of weeds that need to be controlled. The most pernicious is Rush Skeleton Weed, a Class “A” noxious weed. In addition, there are three Class “B” weeds: Canada Thistle, Morning Glory, and White Top.
Weed Control Director Rod Asher claims that he has found these four weeds growing “rampant and unchecked” on Azure’s lands along Sayrs and Erskine Roads in Moro. Asher says that all four of these weeds are perennial plants that reproduce by seed and roots—thus the methods of controlling them needs to be comprehensive, varied, and persistently applied.
Rush Skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea)
Rush skeletonweed is considered to be the most problematic of Azure’s weeds. Stephen M. Van Vleet of the Washington State University Extension Service and Eric M. Coombs of the Oregon State Department of Agriculture say the following about this troubling plant:
“Rush skeletonweed is an exotic herbaceous biennial or creeping perennial plant indigenous to Central Asia and the Mediterranean region. Introduced into the eastern United States during the 1870s, it has since become troublesome in many western states. Rush skeletonweed is an aggressive plant that infests cropland, rangeland, and other disturbed areas. In particular, rush skeletonweed threatens the productivity of:
a) cropland (small grains, like wheat) due to an extensive root system that enables it to effectively compete with crops for water and nutrients (especially nitrogen), and because of its strong wiry stems and latex sap that interfere with harvest equipment.
b) rangeland through displacement of native or beneficial species, thereby reducing forage for livestock and wildlife.
“Overall acreage infested with rush skeletonweed in the Pacific Northwest (defined here as Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) and California is in the millions and continues to increase, elevating rush skeletonweed to a top priority for many land managers. Rush skeletonweed is designated “noxious” and targeted for intensive control or eradication in the Pacific Northwest.
“Rush skeletonweed is a broadleaf plant in the sunflower family. It occurs as a rosette from fall through early spring after germination and emergence and as a 1–4-foot tall plant during the summer.”
The Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign of Kootenai County adds the following:
“Rush Skeletonweed thrives in well-drained, sandy or rocky soils, along roadsides, in rangelands, pastures and grain fields… Seeds mature 9 to 15 days after the flowers open. Each seed has a parachute of fine hairs which allow it to travel long distances by wind…. but rosettes can form from lateral roots at varying distances from the parent plant.
“Skeletonweed is difficult to control. It will be necessary to use a number of different control methods.”
Azure proposes heavy fertilizer applications to its wheat fields to amplify growth, and then utilize deep cultivation in the Fall when the crops are dry. This deep tilling will pull the roots of the Skeletonweed to the surface where they can dry out.
Nathan Stelzer, Azure’s second-in-command to CEO David Stelzer, offers the following explanation on how heavy fertilization functions:
“The same fertilizer that kills the weeds, makes the wheat grow better. Weeds only grow when there is an imbalance in the soil. Fertilizers build and balance the soils. It’s a timely process; it doesn’t happen overnight. Anything with true nature takes time.”
Since Skeletonweed roots can propagate new plants, Azure will also try an implement called a “Subsoiler,” which will go deeper and get more thistle roots up to the surface.
In addition, Azure will mow the Skeletonweed before seeds develop. Also, Azure proposes a “foliar” spraying with a mix of calcium, manganese and boron prior to cultivation directly to the Skeletonweed leaves. This will cause new blooms to wilt and not seed-out. This process won’t kill the entire plant, but will control its spread.
Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Canada Thistle is a tall plant with a large seed cone. Wikipedia describes how it effects agricultural lands:
“The species is widely considered a weed even where it is native… It is also a serious invasive species in many additional regions where it has been introduced, usually accidentally as a contaminant in cereal crop seeds. It is cited as a noxious weed in several countries; such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the United States. Many countries regulate this plant, or its parts (i.e., seed) as a contaminant of other…products such as grains for consumption or seeds for propagation. In Canada, Cirsium arvense is classified as a primary noxious weed seed.
“Control methods include cutting at flower stem extension before the flower buds open to prevent seed spread. Repeated cutting at the same growth stage over several years may “wear down” the plant.”
Azure will attack Canada Thistle in a similar fashion to Rush Skeletonweed; namely, heavy fertilization of the wheat crop, deep cultivation with a possible follow-up with subsoiler tilling to pull up weed roots. Then mowing before seeds form, and folair spraying with a possible application of Boron and other mineral applications to individual plants.
In addition, David Cross, Azure’s Marketing Director, gives the following perspective: “In regards to Canada Thistle, and I think it applies universally – you have to catch/time a weed at the right stage of its growth cycle to have the maximum impact. For example in the case of the use of concentrated (30%) acetic acid for Canada Thistle you’d apply it during the growth phase of the plant then it takes up the acetic acid and it has the maximum impact. It’s similar to how blackberries are managed actually. If you add the solution too late it will just sit there on the outside and have no effect.
“Also with deep cultivation which deeply aerates the soil and brings up the deep weed roots to expose and dry them out. If you do that at the right time you won’t bifurcate the roots and cause them to re-grow 2 plants; instead (it) kills them… if you cut the root at the wrong time of year you will simply split the root and create a “new cutting” so to speak.”
However, the process of weed control is complex, since boron, manganese, and calcium are necessary for healthy plant growth. Again, Nathan Stelzer offers an explanation:
“After taking a leaf analyses of our Canadian Thistle, it shows that they are pulling up Boron, manganese, and calcium from the soil to balance it. The soil in Moro is very depleted of Boron, manganese and calcium, so the science behind it, is that if you fertilize the weeds with these (minerals), it ‘intoxicates’ the thistle, causing the blooms to dry up. If the soil gets balanced properly, the thistle will lose its purpose of being there and eventually (will) die out. These particular elements might not work for everyone’s thistle. It depends on what the thistle is trying to pull up out of the soil to balance it.”
Morning Glory is the common name for a vine weed known biologically as “Bindweed,” which is the term that Azure uses. However, Sherman County identifies this weed by its taxonomic name of Convolvulus arvensis. Regardless, its presence in agricultural lands presents serious issues. The following is a description of Morning Glory/Bindweed in Wikipedia:
“Field bindweed intertwines and topples native species. It competes with other species for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. It poses threats to restoration efforts and riparian corridors by choking out grasses and forbs. It can decrease habitat biodiversity. It is one of the most serious weeds of agricultural fields in temperate regions of the world. (emphasis added.)
“Field bindweed is difficult to eradicate because the seeds remain viable in soil for up to 20 years. One plant can produce up to 500 seeds. The deep, extensive root system stores carbohydrates and proteins and allows it to sprout repeatedly from fragments and rhizomes following removal of above ground growth. Weed control includes: tilling or hand pulling; competitive planting by utilizing pumpkins, melons, squash and other plants with a thorny vine to keep it down and shade it out. Other approaches include mulching using paper, straw, wood chips, or black plastic.”
Azure proposes many of these techniques to control its Morning Glory. Specifically, they plan to spread fabric cloths on top of Morning Glory patches to shade-out the weeds. Similarly, they are contemplating using a citrus pulp mulch to smother the weeds. Also, Azure is considering applying an organic mineral-salt cocktail called Sea90 around the edges of weed infestations. However, this application is tricky since Sea90 is a mineral supplement designed to enhance healthy plant growth. Nathan Stelzer explains:
“Sea90 is an ocean salt, so in small doses it enhances plant growth, but in high doses it will kill most anything due to its high sodium content.”
Lastly, Azure will begin testing the application of Boron on small spots of growth, and then waiting to see its results.
White Top (Cardaria draba)
The USDA says that White Top is “an aggressive perennial forb (a herbaceous flowering plant that is not a grass, such as a grain crop like wheat. The term is used in biology and in vegetation ecology, especially in relation to grasslands).
“White Top is somewhat tolerant of salty soil, and grows up to 2 feet tall. Many small white flowers are produced, giving a white-topped appearance. Plants most aggressively establish where extra water is available, like swales, or irrigated fields without frequent cultivation. Seeds establish new stands when transported by water, vehicles, farm machinery, or contaminated hay and crop seeds.
“The stubborn persistence of this weed is due to an extensive root system. New shoots arise as roots creep laterally beneath the surface of the soil. A single plant can send out 400 shoots in a year. (Emphasis added). Vertical roots may penetrate the soil to a depth of 15 feet and allow the plant colony to withstand extensive drought. Only about one quarter of the plant is seen above ground (emphasis added) while the rest is below ground, hoarding water and nutrients. New populations should be aggressively controlled to prevent seed spread to new areas. It can look similar to perennial pepperweed, except it is shorter with more compact flowerheads, and its seed pods do not open at maturity.
“Infestations rapidly establish dense stands and decrease rangeland health.
“It takes plowing once a month for 2-4 years to remove colonies once established… Mowing followed by an herbicide application on regrowth is likely the most feasible method of control… Fire will not kill perennial plants, and seedlings can grow quickly following burns. Where possible, shrub establishment may provide long-term suppression of whitetop colonies. Regardless of the control method, an intensive management process is required in heavily infested areas.”
Azure proposes a variety of treatments. On those lands left fallow and used as pastureland, cattle grazing will provide a measure of control. However, the USDA says that “palatability of whitetop decreases as plants mature, and the foliage becomes coarse and bitter,” which will reduce the degree of grazing on the weeds.
For those lands in wheat production, Azure will mow the White Top at bloom to prevent “seeding-out.”
In addition, Azure may attempt deep cultivation to bring White Top roots to the surface to dry out.
Other Control Methods
Azure says that it will continue with many of its existing weed control programs, such as allowing fields to go fallow in regular intervals, during which the wheat-free lands can be heavily tilled to eradicate weeds.
In a memo sent to the Mountain News, Azure CEO David Stelzer said that “typically every other year is fallow, and we have done a ‘double fallow’ a couple of times.”
In addition, Stelzer described his general approach to weed control as: “Timed cultivation, mowing, deep sub-soil tilling, covering with landscaping fabric, covering with thick citrus pulp, heavy calcium applications, and ‘back-to-back fallow.’”
Nathan Stelzer also gives a broader perspective on “timed cultivation:”
“Timed cultivation is cultivating when it’s dry enough that it kills the weeds. It doesn’t do any good to cultivate in the rain! Also, cultivating in a timely manner when the weeds are re-growing and just starting to the see light again. It’s cultivating the weeds at the optimum time to kill them.”
Further, Azure announced this week that Sherman County has added Russian Knapweed to the list of noxious weeds that it wants Azure Farms to remove. Nathan Stelzer offered the following thoughts:
“There isn’t much knapweed at all in Moro and it usually dies out after being plowed, tilled, or cultivated. It kills out easily, so I’m not sure why it’s a noxious weed.”
Azure says that it will make changes in other areas that will directly and indirectly effect the issues swirling around Moro.
David Cross said that Nathan Stelzer’s son, Nathaniel, and his new bride Sarah, will be moving to Moro in the near future and taking direct control of operations on the 2,000 acres in dispute. As a result, Azure will have the capacity for immediate response to both weed growth and addressing the concerns of its neighbors.
In light of these changes, Sherman County Commissioner Tom McCoy is feeling more optimistic about a positive outcome. McCoy is quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “Weed Control Director Rod Asher is researching some of the measures proposed by Azure, but he believes the plan may be workable if Azure is really willing to implement it. So far, their follow-up has not been good.”
The following photographs are provided courtesy of Wikipedia, the USDA, the WSU AG Extension, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture