PENDLETON, Ore. – Tumbleweeds are a common sight across Eastern Oregon, rolling over the vast landscape like something out of an Old West movie.
They are also a scourge for dryland wheat farmers, spreading hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds that invade fallow fields and rob the ground of critical moisture.
The weed isn’t native to North America, but is believed to have been brought to South Dakota in contaminated flax seed in the late 19th century by Russian immigrants. It spreads quickly, with the stem detaching from the root and being carried by the wind across long distances, leaving its seed along the way.
A group of growers in southern Morrow County has come up with an ambitious plan to eradicate the invasive tumbleweeds – Russian thistle – from approximately 100,000 acres south of Ione, where they say the problem has exploded in recent years.
But first, they must receive a $7 million matching grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Natural Resource Conservation Service administers the program funding, which supports collaborative work to protect natural resources while benefiting agriculture.
The group submitted its pre-application proposal to the agency on April. If selected, they will submit a full proposal by Aug. 31. Grants will not be awarded until November.
John Rietmann, who has farmed near Ione for more than 30 years, said the project would run over five years and help determine best management practices for dealing with Russian thistle. The management area would run north to Ione along Baseline Road, south to the Heppner-Condon highway, east to Rhea Creek and west to Eightmile Canyon.
The goal, Rietmann said, is to sustain no-till farming in the region, which has already proven valuable for local farmers.
“This is the best methodology to reduce wind and water erosion, and to maintain soil health,” he said.
No-till relies on direct seeding, where a drill plants the crop seed and fertilizer directly into the soil with minimal disturbance on the surface.
Rietmann said he has been no-tilling for 12 years now, and others in the group for even longer.
“We’ve all invested a lot of money getting ourselves educated in the tools and equipment needed to be involved in direct seeding,” he said.
Russian thistle, however, threatens to make that investment unsustainable. Farmers use herbicides, such as glyphosate, to spray for weeds without tilling fallow fields. As Russian thistle continues to spread, Rietmann said they are having to spend more time and money treating the problem.
Combined with the sagging price of wheat, Rietmann said it is pushing the cost of production beyond their break-even point.
“This is a low-margin business as it is,” he said.
Research from Oregon State University also shows some tumbleweeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, forcing farmers to turn to other higher-risk chemicals. If they can eliminate Russian thistle, Rietmann said it would dramatically reduce input costs and ensure farmers can afford no-till practices.
Rietmann said they have already raised nearly $7 million in matching dollars and in-kind work for the grant. The project would have on-the-ground support from Larry Lutcher and Judit Barroso with OSU Extension Service, and Stewart Wuest with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Barroso, who works at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center north of Pendleton, said the proposal is a great idea and based on sound science.
“If we are able to prevent the spreading of Russian thistle, we’ll be more successful controlling the weed,” she said.
Kacee Lathrop, district conservationist for the NRCS in Morrow County, said she helped steer the group toward applying for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. She said she is impressed by the initiative from local growers.
“They’re the ones who identified the problem and are seeking help and funding, which is pretty unique,” Lathrop said. “It’s a pretty aggressive goal they’re trying to attain.”
Rietmann said the project would be daunting, but if successful could be a game-changer for the region.
“Logic says, in the agricultural community, this will move beyond the project boundaries as people see whether it’s successful or not,” he said.
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