Farming Disaster-- Attack of the killer plant - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

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Farming Disaster-- Attack of the killer plant

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November 13, 2006

Macon County  --  You probably studied the boll weevil back when you were in school.     That little beetle so devastated the south's cotton crop it contributed to the Great Depression, it took decades to eradicate, and it became a part of the history books.  

Experts say the most serious threat to southern farming since the boll weevil is growing right now in south Georgia, and many farmers don't even know it.     

If they don't learn about it and launch an all out war against it soon, Georgia's number one industry is headed for disaster.

Walter Forsling has plowed and planted his Macon County farm fields since Harry Truman was President. "This is my 53rd crop, so I've been in it quite a while," he says.

Through all those 53 harvests, He's never seen anything like this. The new threat is pigweed, And this particular pigweed is nearly unkillable. "You just can't grow a crop in this kind of situation with pigweed."

If Forsling can even get his picking equipment in this soybean field, He'll be lucky to get close to half his normal yield.  Pigweed threatens to force this old farmer right out of his fields. "You just have to walk away from the land.  What else you gonna do with it?"

The seeds are what makes this pigweed so dangerous. One plant can produce a million seeds.  Not only does it spread fast, it grows fast, even in a drought when the crops it covers up struggle just to survive. "It'll grown an inch or two a day," says Extension Agent Jeremy Kichler.

Yep, Two inches a day up to eight or nine feet tall. "They're two or three feet above our heads." And that's not even the worst part.  This pigweed developed a resistance to the cheap, safe, and easy-to-use herbicide that used to kill it with no problem. "You have lost the most effective and most economical herbicide in the world," says UGA Weed Scientist Stanley Culpepper.

Culpepper helped discover this pest in Macon County. "We could not kill this at this site.  First case in the world."

His research confirmed the weed's resistance to Round-Up, The reliable chemical farmers depended on to keep their cotton and soybean fields clean for a decade.  Now, he spends most of his time studying how to stop pigweed and warning farmers of the catastrophic danger. "We have got a pest.  There's none any worse anywhere, and it has the ability to put us out of business if we don't take it seriously and start adopting some programs to prevent this from coming in," Stanley said.

Basically, The only way to keep pigweed from taking over your crops is to keep it away from your crops. "There's one program that will work, and that's the program of prevention." That means ditching the Round-Up for residual herbicides that must be sprayed just before it rains. 

Farmers who wait until resistant pigweed shows up will be forced to drag out expensive chemicals and spraying methods and tillage techniques they haven't used for years.

Gordon Sutton has tried all of that.  His farm was ground zero for this epidemic.  He's the farmer who first noticed this pigweed problem with his cotton. "We'd get back and spray it again, and spray it again, and it still wouldn't kill it."

People had a hard time believing him because pigweed had never been hard to kill. This fall, Sutton is able to pick most of his cotton, but only because he followed every instruction the researchers and his extension agent gave him to the letter, and he wants other farmers to do the same. 

"They just better start to listen and take it seriously." He knows if they don't,  "It's a straight loss.  It's as simple as that." But there's no simple solution to a complex problem that could turn into a farming disaster.   

Scientists have confirmed resistant pigweed in Macon, Dooly, Taylor, and Lee Counties. They're certain it's already spread to other counties, and it's also starting to show up in neighboring states as well. Right now, It primarily affects cotton and soybeans, But it has the potential to devastate many other crops also.

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