Weed could threaten Will County soybean crops
BY ERIN GALLAGHER Correspondent January 5, 2014 8:26PM
Palmer amaranth, a weed native to deserts in the southwestern United States, has made its way to Will County and could cost Illinois soybean farmers billions of dollars annually, experts predict. | Supplied photo
Updated: February 7, 2014 6:18AM
A fast-growing weed that is noxious to other plants and which has put farmers in southern states out of business has appeared in Will, Grundy and Kankakee counties. Experts are calling it a catastrophic development, with potentially widespread economic consequences that could be in the billions of dollars.
The weed, Palmer amaranth, is native to desert areas in the southwestern United States but now has reached several states in the Midwest.
Female plants here populate up to a million seeds per plant. In Illinois’ wet, fertile soils, the plants grow at a rate up to 3 inches a day and reach as much as 7 feet high.
The weed essentially is uncontrollable once it emerges, according to Aaron Hager, an associate professor in the University of Illinois crop sciences department.
Many growers in Tennessee have lost their farms due to widespread Palmer infestation, according to crop weed specialist Larry Steckel, of the University of Tennessee. He estimated that the infestation cost soybean growers in Tennessee about $112 million in herbicide costs and lost yields in 2011. That doesn’t include fields that couldn’t be harvested or had to be replanted due to the weed’s presence.
There are about 1.6 million acres of soybeans in western Tennessee. Illinois has 10 times that acreage. If Illinois farmers experience here what happened there, it would put soybean losses in the state at more than $1 billion annually, Steckel said.
Additionally, agronomy experts at Hintzsche Fertilizer in Minooka have seen Palmer in the corn crops, not just soybeans. Steckel said that occurrence has been documented only in a few states, such as Georgia and Missouri.
Another concern is that climate and soil conditions down south result in female plants producing less than half the seeds as Illinois plants. This is critical, since containing the mass spread of seeds is a key component to fighting the weed.
“This is a species that has literally put farmers out of business who don’t take it seriously,” Hager said. “Based on what I saw last September, I would not be surprised if farmers in Kankakee, Grundy and Will county start losing fields next year.”
Joliet Junior College agriculture professor Bill Johnson said Palmer has so quickly overtaken the area that he wasn’t aware it surfaced in Will County.
“I don’t think anybody is going to know how bad the problem is going to be,” said Johnson, an expert in agricultural economics. “It’s going to be a real threat in crop production, I think, in the next five years.”
Both Steckel and Hager agree Palmer is changing farming culture. Controlling weeds can become so expensive with certain crops, such as soybeans, that many farmers may decide not to plant them at all, Steckel said.
Illinois is one of the largest producers of soybeans in the world.