Walking through Terra Firma’s field of Snap and English peas, all you can see is lush vegetation and an abundance of white flowers — exactly what a farmer wants to see. But bend down to inspect the just-forming pea-pods, and you see something else.
There, underneath the canopy, is a sprawling weed, growing almost flat on the ground. It has sprouted and grown up directly under the pea plants, and like them, it is flowering abundantly. Preparing to make seeds. Until two years ago, I had never seen it before. I found it in a single field at one ranch, and thought it was just a curiosity. A wild form of chervil, related to carrots and cilantro, I assumed it was probably a similarly weak and slow-growing plant. Not a threat.
Weedy chervil (my name for it) is not a common weed. If it had an Instagram account, it would have just a few dozen followers. Websites devoted to weeds barely mention it. But this little-known plant has found a niche on our farm and has become somewhat of a nightmare.
A year into Covid, ordinary people have gotten a crash course in contagion, the mechanism by which an organism can spread like wildfire and infect a vast population and/or geographic area. People who never before saw a handshake or a hug as a threat now understand how microbes can move thousands of miles in a single day. The term “germaphobe” is antiquated. We live in a pandemic reality that demands fearful respect and awe of invisible life forms.
Like Covid, the weedy chervil has found an ecological niche on our organic farm. Most weeds are bullies, sprouting and growing more quickly than the crops they compete against. They are “bigger, faster, stronger”. We have adopted numerous, fairly effective tools to keep these weeds at check, using their fast growth against them. And our most common weed threats are established in all of our fields, as well as on surrounding farms and non-farmed areas.
But because the chervil acts more like a vegetable, it is harder to control with our established techniques. It takes weeks to germinate, meaning the seeds sprout after many of our primary weed controls have already taken place. This leaves it with very little competition, save the vegetable crops. The seedlings are tiny and weak looking, but when it finally gets to growing, it is extremely aggressive, sprawling over the ground under the crops. Very few weeds can tolerate growing in the shade of another plant, but the chervil seems to thrive in those conditions. It also makes it harder to spot.
Because the weedy chervil stayed under our radar screen for so long, it was able to produce copious amounts of its tiny seed in a few fields. Our farm equipment transported those seeds to other ranches and fields in small amounts of residual soil that sticks to it, and lo and behold we started to see the plant in other places. You could literally see where the “infection” started, in patches at the edges of fields — almost certainly where a piece of equipment began working after it was moved from a different field. Contact tracing, for a weed.
Now, we are fighting a battle to keep the weed out of new fields. Our crew has spent the last two days painstakingly removing weedy Chervil plants from under the snap peas, and throwing them in the dumpster. It’s the farm equivalent of disinfecting an entire building to ensure it is free of Covid.
As an organic farmer, I feel the same way about soil that most human beings feel about hugs and handshakes. So it was a rude awakening, to say the least, to come to the realization that the soil from one of our ranches might make another ranch “sick”. Weed seeds are not the only “contagion” that can be carried from one field to another. There are also soil-dwelling viruses, bacteria and other malevolent pathogens that can easily survive for days in a clump of soil. Pathological nematodes and other tiny soil organisms can also easily hitch a ride on farm equipment.
The farm equivalent of “masking up” is power-washing equipment every time you move it from one field to another. For a large farm, this is a fairly efficient activity — a piece of equipment might spend a whole week in one field before moving. But on our farm, with its patchwork of small fields and different crops, we might move a single piece of equipment three times or more in one day! Cleaning the equipment is going to be a major time investment. Still, it is better than the alternative: having a previously unknown weed or soil pest infect a field so badly that it no longer can produce crops. There is no “vaccine” against these problems, and soil health does not protect against them the way a healthy immune system might protect a human body.
A year after the start of Covid, many of us will never look the same way again at a crowded bar, a tightly packed airplane, or a stranger sneezing. And I will never again have quite as warm and fuzzy feelings about the soil on my farm.