Weeds, Herbicides, and Bodies: Emerging Entanglements in Toxic Agricultural Landscapes

Pigweed. Photo by author.

By Tony VanWinkle, Sterling College §

Dedicated to the memory of Jackie Dill.

Pigweed. Photo by author.

Shortly after the unexpected death of friend and mentor Jackie Dill, I read Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s poem, “The Change,” which narrates a first person, indigenous retrospective on shifts in the workaday world of tobacco field laborers. Central to this convulsive change was the transition to mechanization and herbicide regimes. After a vivid description of a hospitalization following exposure to the pesticide malathion, the poem’s narrator recalls the time “before”:

Before edgers and herbicides took

What they   call weeds,

When we walked for days

Through thirty acres   and

Chopped them out with hoes.

In this poem, I heard Jackie’s voice. Two years of field-based research at two different field sites, focused on resource use, agriculture, and climate issues in rural Oklahoma, brought my family and I into contact with Jackie, one of the state’s most respected and revered traditional wild plant foragers (or wildcrafters, as she would have preferred), who learned the language of plants from her Cherokee grandmother. She, in turn, trained and inspired hundreds of people through her frequent workshops and her self-published books, the most recent titled, Eat Your Weeds. Near the end of my tenure at my second-year field site, our acquaintance deepened into a dear friendship, as she moved into a cabin next-door on a rural retreat property that welcomed sojourners of all kinds.

On one our last roadside foraging outings before her passing, she was excited to show us a patch of white prickly poppies (Argemone albiflora), a plant she utilized frequently for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Like much of Oklahoma’s roadside flora, however, these plants often grow in close proximity to private lands utilized for agricultural purposes. This particular patch of white prickly poppies was adjacent to a large wheat field in bottomlands along the Cimarron River. On a return trip to the site, we were disappointed to find the prickly poppies withered and brown. Much of the surrounding vegetation, including the lower branches of trees, exhibited similar signs of chemical burn damage. Though it is not necessarily common practice, this year’s wet spring probably pushed the wheat farmer to use an herbicide, perhaps glyphosate, in order to chemically terminate further growth and achieve uniform drying before the typical June harvest. The prickly poppy patch across the road simply became collateral damage. They are just weeds after all.

In other parts of contemporary Oklahoma, however, the hoes that Hedge Coke’s poem described as populating the farms of her childhood, are reappearing in the present context of emergent “super weeds” that, unlike prickly poppies, have evolved a resistance to commercial herbicides, and glyphosate in particular (glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s popular Round-up herbicide). The convergence of Jackie Dill’s desiccated prickly poppies and the evolution of super weeds suggest that a notion of something like “toxic ethnobotany” is needed to understand the complex intersections of power and ecology in herbicide-mediated agricultural landscapes in Oklahoma.

The county that was my unit of study for the previous year’s fieldwork further illustrates this. The county had once been the state’s leading cotton producer, and after a lull of nearly half a century, cotton was on the rebound as one of the county’s leading crops. This context occasioned my attendance at many cotton-related events, including an annual conference attended by producers, extension researchers, and industry representatives. The central theme of the conference this particular year was palmer amaranth, or pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri), one of the most aggressive of the so-called “super weeds.” One of the speakers at the conference cited surveys conducted by Oklahoma State University Extension in 2013 and 2015. In the former survey, only 12.5% of those surveyed listed pigweed as a major concern. By 2015, that percentage had jumped to 86%. Indeed, since resistance was first confirmed between 2000 and 2005 (Zhou et al 2015), the spread of herbicide resistant weeds has accelerated at a remarkable pace.

Prickly Poppy. Photo by author.

In 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, 90 million acres of farmland in the U.S. were treated with herbicides. Though Carson’s landmark indictment of biocides catalyzed the eventual banning of DDT in the U.S., fifty years after its publication, total acreage treated with herbicides had increased to 215 million acres (Price et al 2011: 257). Much of this increase has occurred since the mid-to-late 1990s, following the introduction of transgenic, glyphosate-resistant cultivars in 1996. These varieties have come to dominate major U.S. commodity crop varieties. In the case of cotton, as Price et al. demonstrate (2011), in less than ten years transgenic, glyphosate-resistant cotton cultivars had grown to constitute 70% of total crop production. The industry today is almost completely dependent on “complete variety packages” that include patented, herbicide resistant seed and companion herbicide treatments.

The increase in herbicide-treated-acreage over the last fifty years is indicative of a concomitant increase in so-called conservation tillage. Also known as no-till, this technique has minimized soil disturbance common to conventional tillage practices that expose bare soils to natural erosional forces that yielded environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In addition to the reduction of erosion problems, the no-till “revolution” has, until recently, reduced weed pressure through the use of the herbicides that enable and drive the whole system. This “chemotherapy for the land,” as Wes Jackson characterizes it, has also resulted in fields conspicuously absent of a human presence of any kind, including that of laborers.

A contraction and retreat of pesticide activism and awareness over this same time period is yet another important consideration here. The aggressive, oppositional politics of first-generation pesticide activism like that of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers movement, for example, has been displaced by the more accommodating market-based-alternatives-approach of current sustainable food movements. The effect, in Jill Harrison’s assessment, has been a shift “from an interrogation of injustices at the site of production towards a preoccupation with the final product . . . from aiming to combat pesticide use in conventional agriculture toward targeting support for alternative spaces of production” (2008: 1206). The resultant blind spots have permitted a proliferation of “abandoned bodies and spaces of sacrifice.”

The chink-in-the-armor of the chemical merchants that the return of hand labor signifies has elicited reactionary responses. As one commentator writing for Delta Farm Press suggests, “We are going to do what we have to in order to survive the herbicide resistance onslaught. Some of it will be by using residual herbicides; some of it may be with changes in cultural practices, and, yes, some may be with hoeing for a while in some cases. However, there is something wrong with going backwards” (Baldwin 2011). In this view, the way forward continues the triumphant march led by chemical-seed corporations, whose response to herbicide resistance has been the development of newer, more volatile chemical compounds and combinations. In the interim, cotton production standards are returning to models that bring the bodies of farmworkers back into contexts of exposure, as the chemical future and the manual past meet in toxic cotton fields.

Picking up Allison Adele Hedge Coke’s poem where we left off, with the chopping of weeds with hoes, she continues,

Hoes,    made long before    from wood and steel

and sometimes (even longer ago)

from wood and deer scapula.

Both Hedge-Coke and the Delta Farm Press author above suggest hoes, and the manual labor they represent, are anachronistic in the context of mechanized, chemical agriculture. But their respective valuation of that situation diverges considerably. One recognizes the sanctity of life and the dignity of old ways displaced by industrial agriculture, a point of view that Jackie Dill understood well. Again hearing her voice channeled through Hedge-Coke’s poetry:

Before all of this new age, new way,

I was a sharecropper in Willow Springs, North Carolina,

as were you    and we were proud to be Tsa la gi [Cherokee]

wishing for winter    so we could make camp

at Qualla Boundary . . .


When we still remembered . . .


that then the tobacco was sacred to all of us and we

prayed whenever we smoked and

did not smoke for pleasure    and

I    was content and free.

 The alternative, voiced by the Delta Farm Press writer, continues to press toward a modernist future that displays little respect for life or labor, a world in which the treadmill of pesticide intensification both exposes and disposes of laboring bodies.

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. 2002 [1962]. Silent Spring. New York, NY: Houghton Miflin.
Ford, Baldwin. 2011. “Going Back in Time for Weed Control.” Delta Farm Press. Retrieved from http://www.deltafarmpress.com/soybeans/going-back- time-weed-control.
Harrison, Jill. 2007. “Abandoned Bodies and Spaces of Sacrifice: Pesticide Drift Activism and the Contestation of Neoliberal Environmental Politics in
California.” Geoforum 39: 1197-1214.
Hedge Coke, Allison Adelle. 1997. Dog Road Woman. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press.
Price, A.J., K.S. Balkcom, S.A. Culpepper, J.A. Kelton, R.L. Nichols, and H. Schomberg. 2011. “Glyphosate-Resistant Palmer Amaranth: A Threat to Conservation Tillage.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 66 (4): 265-275.
Zhou, Xia “Vivian,” James A. Larson, Dayton M. Lambert, Roland K. Roberts, and Burton C. English. 2015. “Farmer Experience with Weed Resistance to
Herbicides in Cotton Production.” AgBioForum 18 (1): 114-125.

Tony VanWinkle is a professor in the sustainable food systems program at Sterling College, in northern Vermont. An environmental and agricultural anthropologist, this piece is based on research concerned with how local agricultural practices, resource rights and governance, and land use changes interact with larger-scale patterns of climate variability in the southern Great Plains. Additionally, Dr. VanWinkle maintains long-term research interests in food systems/food studies, sustainability, agro-biodiversity, and environmental justice issues confronting socially disadvantaged and limited resource farmers and ranchers in the rural U.S. and Central America.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.