For various reasons, the weeding crews from the old days probably won’t return to soybean fields in large numbers. Even though herbicide-resistant weeds are causing huge problems, biotech seems to rule the day. Yes, debates rage and certain chemicals have hit roadblocks, but more than 90% of corn and soybeans are “GMO” in my home state of Iowa, and the trend probably won’t change.
Another reason bean-walking crews probably won’t become popular again? It’s hard work. Most would not want to endure what we kids did on summer days along half-mile rows. I imagine bright entrepreneurs will have robotic weed-seeking Roombas out there instead.
But, times change and sometimes recycle. So, as a primer for the uninitiated—what was bean walking?
A recent article from Iowa Ag Literacy gives a clear overview of the process. The writer is obviously one of those chronic optimists—she starts by mentioning the good tan that comes with the process and finishes with five valuable skills workers gained from the job.
In the blog entry below, I am pulled a bit more to the dark side about the weeding, but I admit those days working on the farm still float pleasantly in my nostalgia cloud.
Roundup Weeded Out Us Bean Walkers, Too
Most soybean fields in my home state now look like English gardens, with precision rows and soft breezes rippling along the tops of weedless soybean plants. In one respect, it’s a shame. In the pre-GMO days, soybean fields had personality.
The classy ones were neat and orderly, with maybe a few weeds along the fence rows and waterways. The owners kept their cultivators sharpened, and they pounced when weeds showed above the bean rows, especially if drivers could see them from the road.
The casual soybean fields were mixed but salvageable. Wayward stalks of corn would shoot up, cocklebur patches hovered low and menacing, and sections of off-green buttonweeds tried to hide among the soybeans. Farmers usually battled these weeds, with varying results.
A few fields were fashion disasters. Clumps of volunteer corn dotted the rows, burrs and buttonweeds took over sections of the field, and ironweeds looked like sapling trees. Occasionally, thistle patches would get so out of control, somebody would just have to post an “Enter at Your Own Risk” sign.
In the 1960s, soybean fields made for good talking points. By June it was obvious which ones would need to be “walked”—weeded by stoop laborers…or teenagers like us. Farmers would hire youngsters to go row-by-row to pull weeds. My brothers, cousins, and I started walking beans on the home place about as soon as we were potty-trained, but Dad let us hire out to neighbors by the time we were 12 or so. Child labor laws were flexible then, and the 50-cents-an-hour wage that first year didn’t bring the IRS down on us.
We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ sneakers, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like outer-space triffids. Heat, thirst, and blowflies were irritating, but mud-clod fights with a cousin eight rows over could be dangerous. It was satisfying to see the field get “clean and tidy” several rows at a time, but we were really after pocket money to buy a top-40 vinyl record or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.
I’m not blaming the biotech crowd, but soybean fields became soul-less during the past years—bland and beautiful, like some type of cloned fields of dreams. Chemicals weeded out us bean walkers, but the new super weeds are herbicide resistant and increasingly aggressive. I better be careful what I wish for–I’m not pining to dig out hoes, gloves, and mud shoes again.
by dan gogerty (top pic from uky.edu.jpg and bottom from foodintegritynow.com)