Organic food farmers are confronting weeds as their biggest problem — the same weeds which prompted their earlier counterparts to resort to herbicides. But help may be on the way.
Researchers at Montana State University are leading a collaborative grant across the four-state Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest regions with a multi-pronged attack on perennial weeds.
A four-year, $2 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative has been awarded to MSU.
MSU agriculture faculty will work jointly with Montana organic farmers to find control methods for bindweed and creeping thistle. Co-investigators are located at Washington State University, Oregon State University, North Dakota State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Sidney.
For many organic producers field bindweed and creeping thistle are the most challenging and detrimental weeds in their organic cropping systems – the weeds choke out crops, steal vital nutrients from plants, disrupt fields and reduce profits.
For other organic producers, bindweed and creeping thistle infestations have meant taking fields and large acreage out of organic management altogether. In doing so, farmers have been forced to give up their USDA organic certification in favor of herbicides not allowed in organic systems just for some measure of weed control.
The funding will allow statewide experiments at three of MSU’s agricultural research centers and eight statewide organic farms with bindweed and creeping thistle infestations. The farms will mirror the MSU research experiments and farmer cooperators will be active participants and will help researchers collect data on their farms and interpret analyses, according to Patrick Carr, superintendent of MSU’s Central Agricultural Research Center and principal investigator on the grant.
Montana produces more certified organic wheat than any other state in the country and ranks second in total organic grain production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2018, Montana harvested 437,105 organic acres, according to the Mercaris Organic Acreage Report.
Despite Montana’s growing organic agriculture industry, perennial weeds continue to challenge long-term organic production methods and yields, according to Ole Norgaard, owner of North Frontier Farm by Shonkin.
Norgaard said creeping thistle and bindweed can “become so bad that these weeds end-up dictating what you can and can’t do” in organic farming.
Zach Miller, Western Agricultural Research Center superintendent, said the research will benefit conventional agriculture as well.
“These weeds are all over the state and in every kind of system,” Miller said. “I think with using certain rotation sequences, using the right tools and at the right time will allow producers to still make a profit. We have a lot of insight into different treatments that would complement those on the conventional side of production, too.”