Plants Are More Amazing Than You Ever Imagined

It’s easy to think of plants as just… well, plants. While we all know they are living organisms, we tend to think of them as fairly static, basic life forms that look nice when they are properly tended to. That’s about it.

The reality could not be more different. Plants are dynamic, vibrant and aggressive living organisms focused on survival and reproduction. As a farmer, I get to see what these amazing living creatures do every day; and there’s a lot more to them than you think. Incredibly, plants not only have the ability to recognize and respond to external threats, but they can also warn their neighbors about them. Yes – plants do actually have the ability to communicate. Not only will they look out for their neighbors, they will recognize and cooperate with their family. And, when threatened, plants will respond with full-blown chemical warfare.

Talking Soybeans?

As an example, think about a little soybean plant growing out in the field. Beside it, in the same row, you have a combination of unrelated neighbors and maybe, just maybe, a member of its kin. The soybean will grow more competitively with its unrelated neighbors than it will with its kin. Over eons of evolution, plants, just like animals, were more successful if they worked together.

Beside our little soybean plant, there is different competition. A weed. Based on the difference in light reflection between the bare ground and the weed, the soybean plant can sense that there is Nikon J1 234competition beside it. From the air, there may be other competition, such as a soybean aphid. Our soybean plant may release volatile organic compounds into the air to warn its neighbors, or it may instead secrete chemicals into the root zone (rhizosphere) for the same effect. Or, amazingly, it may instead use sounds to warn its neighbors, such as high-frequency clicking sounds (read more here).

What has been well-documented is that when threatened with competition from weeds, soybeans do not respond very well. As the soybeans send out and receive communication signals from other plants within the field, they “realize” they are competing with more aggressive plants. As a response, the soybean will try and grow as tall as possible, sacrificing root growth and it won’t grow the leaf mass it needs to produce high yields. With reduced root growth and smaller leaves, the soybean just won’t have the yield potential it would have had in the absence of competition. What our soybean is really trying to do is quite simple; its entire existence is predicated upon reproduction, and if it can keep itself from being shaded out, it can produce at least a few seeds to carry on its life cycle (source).

Wheat responds similarly to soybeans, trying to grow its leaves taller and longer to get ahead of its competition, sacrificing root growth and, therefore, yield as well. This is why weed control in our crops is so critical; if we allow weeds to compete, even if the crop outcompetes them, yields will be negatively affected.

It wasn’t very long ago that scientists were ridiculed for producing results like this. Plants can’t talk, right? Well, it seems that they can; and they may be capable of much more.

An Intelligent Shrub?

The European barberry is a species of shrub distributed throughout Europe. The tephritid fruit fly is a major pest for this plant, which punctures the berries produced by the shrub and lays its eggs inside, where the larvae will feed on the seeds. The barberry has the ability to abort its seeds if the fruit is infested with eggs, which would cause the death of any larvae. Interestingly, the seeds of the infested fruits are not always terminated; rather, it depends on the level of infestation. For example, if the infested fruit contains two seeds, it will almost always be aborted. However, if it only contains one seed, it is only rarely aborted. Giving up a fruit with only one seed causes the entire fruit to be lost, so the plant doesn’t want to do that unless it absolutely has to.

What is truly amazing about this whole process is that the fruit fly larvae are much more likely to die with only one seed to feed on, rather than two. So the barberry “speculates” that the larvae will die, holding onto that fruit for as long as it can. What does all this mean? The barberry is undergoing complex decision making, which has never before been imagined to be possible in plants. The barberry is anticipating future risks and weighing possible losses and gains (read more here).

Going to War

Evidence that trees talk to each other has grown in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. The question is why. In the case of the Sitka Willow, when under attack by Western Tent Caterpillars and Fall Webworms, the trees change the nutritional content of their leaves. Once the first tree’s leaves are chewed by these pests, it will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to warn its neighbors of the impending danger. The rest of the trees in the area will then change the nutritional content in their leaves to dissuade the insects from feeding, causing them to move on to other targets (source).

A more aggressive example of this signalling is in a more familiar plant – corn. When under attack, corn will release VOCs to attract parasitoids that attack the larvae feeding on the corn. Plant communication isn’t limited to plant-to-plant interactions; they talk to insects as well, when necessary. Some plants, after a warning from their neighbors, will even develop toxins in their leaves to ward off predators (read more here and here).

Applications for Agriculture

While I’m not going to go so far as to say plants are “intelligent” in any sense of the word, or, at least in our understanding of what intelligence is, I think the social community plants develop is Nikon J1 June 003absolutely fascinating. What’s more, it can be used for agriculture. Think about a whole field of wheat that “believes” it’s growing among its kin. Instead of competing against other wheat plants, they could actually work together as a whole to fight predators and weed competition. A signal plant could warn an entire field to produce defense mechanisms against a predator before it even enters the field. While all of this is a very long way away, improving our understanding of plant-to-plant interaction is critical to figure these things out.

Although a lot of this may sound very science-fiction, it has become quite accepted by the scientific community that despite a lack of eyes, ears or a nervous system, plants chatter with each other, with fungi, with insects, and countless microorganisms non-stop. Getting to experience this amazing community every day is something very special about being a farmer, and that’s why I had to share it with you. So next time you wander out in your yard, greenhouse or field, take a moment and think about what’s going on beneath your feet. There is far more going on that meets the eye.

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Never Stop Learning

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “farmer” conjured up an image of an older gentleman in denim overalls riding on an old, cabless green tractor, dragging a single plow across his little field by a red barn full of chickens, pigs, cows and horses. This is the image we are raised with; the expectation most children had when or if they ever visited a farm. Technology? For farmers? No way.

The reality is far different. Today, our farm, like most others, utilizes technology beyond the wildest dreams of farmers a mere 20 years ago. Advanced GPS automatically steers our equipment within 2-4 inch accuracy up and down the fields. A combine automatically Monitors Quadtraccontrols the height of its header to cut just the right amount of straw, and can even control its speed to keep feeding the crop in at a consistent rate. Our sprayer wirelessly sends application data to a cloud program called JDLink, where we can view our field maps from anywhere in the world. We use sophisticated computer software to analyse maps from satellites, electrical conductivity maps and harvest data to generate variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications to our crops. And all of this is really just scratching the surface; it is really just the beginning.

The fact is that agriculture is riding a technology boom unprecedented in history, greater even than the industrial revolution. The changes don’t stop there, however. As many older farmers DSC_0002exit the industry without anyone to take over their operation, more and more land comes available. So, naturally, the farms that do survive to the next generation continue to grow. Farms that were only 1,000 acres 20 years ago are now ten or twenty times that size. Men and women that were once looking after two or three crops on a couple of sections of land are now managing multi-million dollar businesses with various employees, crops and equipment lines.

How do farmers keep up with these changing trends? How do they stay ahead of the technology curve, and somehow stay fluid and profitable at the same time? The key is really rather simple: farmers never stop learning.

Every winter, farmers spend countless hours attending meetings and conventions, pouring through magazines and literature, participating in online forums, and talking to neighbours and colleagues to gather as much information as possible. Most young people returning to farms today have some level of formal education, from ag management diplomas to agronomy degrees, and some even have masters degrees in business.

My experience has been like many young farmers: I acquired a degree specializing in Agronomy with a minor in AgBusiness, and I worked off the farm for many years to gather more experience and industry knowledge. Every year, I spend a great deal of my time reading, from magazines and newspapers like Grainews and The Western Producer to research papers from places like the Indian Head Research Farm and the University of Saskatchewan.

Interestingly, some of the best learning experiences I ever received are due to chemical companies. In the fall of 2013, Bayer CropScience hosted an “Agronomy Summit” at Banff that Grower Universitywas a haven of agronomic knowledge, and certainly one of the most valuable conferences I have ever attended. Later that winter, Syngenta hosted Grower University I at the Richard Ivey School of Business. It was like a master’s degree in business in four days, and the follow-up this past winter in Minnetonka, Minnesota (Grower UII) was fantastic as well. Farmers rarely get the chance to learn the business skills they need in any kind of a formal manner, so kudos to Syngenta for providing this program.

In businesses like agriculture, where everything changes so fast, you can never learn too much. Smartphones and the Internet really changed how farmers go about their day-to-day lives. Twitter is a fantastic place to gather information on insect outbreaks, marketing trends, and thousands of different business ideas from thousands of different farmers.

As agriculture moves into the digital age, we have so much more to learn about, from drones to robotics to mass data collection. It is hard to foresee what the future holds ten or twenty years from now. Some futurists claim we will have artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, both of which, despite their inherent dangers, could be a revolution in agriculture.

Whatever the future may hold, it looks amazingly bright and exciting; we farmers will have to continuously learn as we go forward to try and keep up. It will be a great ride.

Why Do We Spray?

There was a time, not too long ago, that June and July were relatively quiet months on the farm. Once in-crop weed spraying was finished, work in the fields was essentially completed. Farmers were able to spend their summers getting ready for harvest, taking care of unseeded low-lying areas in their fields, and attend weddings and other social events.

Summer this year has been a whirlwind so far. In-crop spraying was completed about two weeks ago (mostly), but fungicide season has only just gotten started. Every sprayer is rolling full out on whatever fields are ready to spray, and farmers are busy checking the rest of the fields to see if they are ready. It is not unheard of to spray 40,000 acres per season, per sprayer.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “in-crop spraying”. After seeding is complete in late May to mid-June, crops must all be sprayed to kill weeds. Make no mistake, this is a critical application, as a crop left to fight weeds on its own can be quickly overwhelmed by competition. Thanks to genetic modification, many of our crops are easy to deal with, such as corn, soybeans and canola. Some are also very competitive, like wheat and barley. However, crops like peas and lentils, even with proper herbicide application, can easily be outcompeted by difficult weeds like kochia, wild buckwheat, wild oats, etc. Spraying these crops is a big project and it takes many hours on the sprayer; but it is not the final application of the year.

As soon as the weeds are taken care of, crops are carefully monitored for disease and insects. Most diseases need wet, humid air and warm temperatures for optimum growth and infection. These diseases are mostly fungi, with a wide variety of species infecting each crop. In wheat, tan spot can be very damaging to the leaves, removing photosynthetic area and replacing it with tan-coloured spots. In canola, white mould can devastate yield potential, choking off the stem and starving the plant. In other crops such as lentils, some diseases can virtually kill an entire field in a matter of days (e.g. Anthracnose).

From the outside looking in on agriculture, you may wonder why we spray so many chemicals on our crops. We would not spray fungicides if we didn’t need to. These are expensive products that require many hours on the sprayer to apply, and many of them have extremely tight application windows. Also, during the summer months, I can guarantee you every farmer would rather be at the lake than spraying non-stop.

Take Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) for example, caused by Fusarium graminearum. This disease, if left unchecked, infects the seeds of durum, wheat and barley, elevating levels of a vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol (DON). As the name suggests, this toxin induces vomiting and can be dangerous if consumed in high enough levels. Therefore, if our grain is infected with FHB, it will be worth a lot less to try and sell. Would you want to eat bread or pastries or drink beer infected with this? It is a difficult disease to control, and we check our durum daily to try and catch the optimal window for fungicide application, which is about a two-day opportunity while the head is flowering. A wheat head that has completed flowering, and therefore moved past its application window, is shown below:

Nikon J1 July 351

We sprayed this crop to protect it from FHB, as climatic conditions are perfect for its development. Unfortunately, we also had to apply a product that everyone hates: chlorpyrifos, also known by its brand name, Lorsban. This product is an insecticide, and yes it is somewhat hazardous. We applied it to protect our crop from the dreaded grasshopper. These verocious insects can eat a lot of material very quickly. To compound the problem, we also found some of these bugs:

 

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This little bug on the wheat head is called the orange blossom wheat midge, a nasty little insect that lays its eggs in the florets of wheat and durum, which hatch later on and chew on the developing kernel. Like FHB-damaged kernels, this also causes grade loss.

Spraying insecticides is not a fun job, but sometimes it is necessary to protect the massive investment we put into our crops every year. We avoid spraying them as much as we can, but you do not have to worry about their safety. There is no kernel, or any form of it, in that wheat head yet. Lorsban has a residual of about 7 days. This plant is at least 40 days from harvest. All of our insecticides, indeed all of our chemicals, have a regulated pre-harvest interval to ensure no residue remains at harvest. Furthermore, scientists have developed economic thresholds to determine when it is worth spraying insecticides to prevent unnecessary spraying. Believe me, if I didn’t believe this our food was safe after spraying with insecticides, would I really be out there spraying it? Would I eat it with my family?

The reason I have covered this in such detail isn’t to tell you how tough farming is. I love farming, and I couldn’t think of a career I could enjoy more. I tell you this so that you may know why we do the things we do. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t smother our crops with pesticides; we target herbicides (kills weeds), fungicides (kills fungi) and insecticides (kills bugs) to specific fields that require them. Someday, maybe we will have better tools that allow us to reduce pesticide use (genetic engineering is by far the best path forward for this), but for now, these are the best options we have. And the reality is, for the most part, they have been proven safe by journal article after peer-reviewed journal article.

That’s my rant for today. Hopefully I can get back on this blog more often in the future, as fungicide season will only last another week or so. I am looking forward to its conclusion. It has been a busy spray season!

Oh, one more point, in case you were wondering how the “summer of storms” has progressed since my last post about it. Immediately after that post, some fields got 3 inches of rain. Yeah. Not good. But things have improved since, and because of near ideal weather in the past two weeks, we are now looking at the potential for a very nice crop. Our fingers are crossed!

If you disagree with me about pesticides and their safety, please comment, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. This is a subject I take very seriously, and I have done a great deal of research on it.