Monday, April 27, 2020

When it comes to agriculture, our noxious weed control efforts are essential

By Beth Bousley

Agriculture is vital to Washington state and a major force in the state's economy. That's why, as part of the essential services being performed during the COVID-19 era of Stay Home, Stay Healthy, our crews have begun work on noxious weed control in some locations.
We are prioritizing our work to control weeds threatening agriculture, including Rush skeleton weed spreading west along the I-90 corridor. These are heading for the prime agricultural lands in the central part of the state and is expanding across the state with a potential large cost to agriculture in the decades ahead if we don't control it now.

But what is a noxious weed?

According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, a noxious weed is an invasive, non-native plant that is so aggressive it harms our local ecosystems or disrupts agricultural production. These plants crowd out the native species that fish and wildlife depend on. They also cost farmers, orchardists and ranchers millions of dollars in control efforts and lost production – and that can make the food we buy more expensive. The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board adopts a State Noxious Weed List each year (WAC 16-750). The list categorizes weeds into three major classes according to the seriousness of the threat they pose.

Why does it need to be controlled?

Our maintenance landscape architect, Ray Willard says early detection and rapid response are key. By controlling the weeds today, we're protecting our crops for years to come.

With hundreds of acres of roadside right of way in our state, our agency plays a critical role in helping control noxious weeds.

"We are stewards of the land," said Dan Floyd, assistant regional administrator for maintenance and operations. "Our mission is to protect our valuable crops that support our communities' economic health and preserve our native vegetation that is vital to our eco-system."

Understanding that the need for noxious weed control is imminent, we are undertaking a targeted noxious weed spray application – only focusing on high-priority agricultural areas in eastern Washington, where weeds will begin to spread and threaten adjacent agriculture areas as the weather warms up if not addressed.

Ernie Sims, one of our maintenance superintendents, said this is the time of year when weeds begin to germinate and grow. He should know as he also farms wheat in Reardan, just northwest of Spokane. Our effort targeting noxious weeds represents about 30% of our normal vegetation management effort in a typical spring.

"It's just going to get worse if we let it go," Sims said.

According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, our state has 39,000 farms operating on more than 15 million acres. Washington is a major agricultural state, producing some 300 commercial crops and livestock products valued at $7.9 billion to Washington farmers and ranchers.
Rush skeleton weed can be a tasty lunch for a goat. We use an Integrated Vegetation Management approach when controlling weeds and other unwanted vegetation, including the use of chemical, mechanical, cultural (establishing desirable vegetation), and biological like our helpful goats.

It's a huge job coordinating control efforts between public and private lands, and transportation corridors have the potential to accelerate the rate of noxious weed spread if we don't get them under control. In 2005, we conducted a research project to study the viability of using goats to control noxious weeds on the North Spokane Corridor.

Tom Riebold, one of our area maintenance supervisors, grew up in Washtucna, just west of Pullman, so he knows a lot about farming in the area and the importance of noxious weed control. He said some weeds carry 10,000 seeds or more and may just sit dormant for years before germinating. High winds in the area can carry the seeds across wide areas, affecting crops for miles around. This makes it harder to harvest. For example, every load of wheat taken to the grain elevator is probed and graded.

"If there are a lot of weeds, the quality goes down and so does the price," he said.

We work closely with state and county weed control boards to identify high priority areas, focusing on the local systems through work with the county coordinators. Our noxious weed control strategy is well thought out and our crews use integrated roadside vegetation management plans to select the right tools, and techniques and timing for taking care of the  roadside landscapes alongside highways.

The whole program is built around state law that requires adherence to a certain set of principles for integrated pest management (IPM). Our work on this over the years has helped put together a solid system but limited funding means roadside maintenance often isn't prioritized. This makes it a big challenge.

Willard, our maintenance landscape architect, works with our biologists, our design landscape architects and the Washington State Department of Ecology to minimize the effect of our work on the environment. Herbicides are used only when necessary and minimized whenever possible. Our crews follow strict guidelines to protect the environment and workers applying chemicals must be licensed to do so.

For example, milkweed cannot be treated during the breeding season of the Monarch butterfly. Nesting birds must be protected. We notify residents before spraying and replace private gardens or crops that are sprayed accidentally. Did you know that we have the oldest apple trees in the country? We protect those too.

Noxious weed control and social distancing

We have developed a Noxious Weed Control COVID-19 Safety Plan to protect the safety of our employees and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It includes guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting vehicles, using personal protective equipment, personal cleanliness and social distancing.

"It may be a bit cumbersome," maintenance superintendent Kurt Kaufman said, "but we'll make it work."