Monday, April 29, 2013

What's that purple stuff in the fields? The answer is one of many landscape stories worth telling

If journalism is broadly defined as helping people understand the world around them, perhaps rural journalists should take opportunities to explain why the land looks the way it does from time to time. Relatively few rural Americans are involved in agriculture, though it helps define the landscape around them. Shouldn't they know how that landscape works? Here's one example. If it's too late for this year, save it for next spring.

Starting in the Upper South a few weeks ago and now reaching the Upper Midwest, unplanted crop fields have turned a light purple from the flowers of henbit (left, from and purple deadnettle (above, from, two similar members of the mint family. But most people who drive by the colorful shows have no idea what plants, natural systems and human systems are at work.

In many cases, the plants are thriving on nitrogen fertlizer remaining from previous years' applications, and rains that may have left the fields too wet to plow and plant, notes Pam Smith, crops technology editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. And she notes that fields with winter annual weeds like these (chickweed and shepherd's purse are other examples) "provide the perfect site for black cutworm moths to lay eggs" as they migrate from the South, where they overwinter.

Cutworms, which are actually caterpillars, can do heavy damage to seedlings, especially soybeans, so there's an economic menace lurking in those purple flowers. Little stories like these abound on the American landscape. Let's do them.

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