Minnesota investigates origin of crop-threatening weed

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By Renita D. Young | CHICAGO

CHICAGO Minnesota has launched an investigation
to find the source of seed mixes contaminated with weed seeds
after the aggressive, herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth weed
was found on 30 areas planted in a federal conservation program.

The weed grows very fast, reaching up to 8 feet in height
and can hold back commercial crops, potentially threatening
hundreds of millions of dollars of production.

Yield losses have been reported of up to 91 percent in corn
and 79 percent in soybeans, according to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), in areas where the weed has previously been
found.

The weed is native to the dry, southwestern part of the
United States. In some parts of that region, it has developed
resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto Co’s Roundup and other weed killers.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers
to return tilled acreage to native plants. The Minnesota
investigation is seeking to determine if the program
inadvertently introduced the weed into the state.

Palmer amaranth also has appeared in Iowa, Illinois,
Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan, including on
land in the federal conservation program.

Minnesota tracked down the weed on the conservation areas in
the southwestern part of the state, after the person who created
the seed mix and planted it said that the plots might be
contaminated. He had been alerted by a client who had spotted
the weed on conservation land, according to state agriculture
department spokesman Allen Sommerfeld.

Minnesota now wants to find out where the weed seed came
from and how it got into the conservation mix, according to
University of Minnesota professor and extension weed scientist
Jeff Gunsolus, a researcher involved in the investigation.

Under the state’s seed law, it is illegal to sell or
transport seed mixes containing the Palmer amaranth seed.
Penalties can include fines of up to $7,500 per day, Sommerfeld
said.

Investigators are interviewing individuals, including some
at seed companies, as well as analyzing seeds and mixes, and
checking the accuracy of seed labels, said Clifford Watrin, a
supervisor of seed law at the state’s agriculture department.

Last week, Watrin told native seed suppliers and planters in
a letter that extra monitoring of seed supply was needed. The
agriculture department now has a DNA test for Palmer amaranth
seeds, as the seed cannot be distinguished from other weed seeds
by sight. Agriculture officials hope this test will help stop
more Palmer amaranth seeds from entering the local market.

Minnesota has set aside $50,000 for the investigation, said
Watrin. Governor Mark Dayton has called for another $300,000 a
year to boost resources for enforcing state regulation over
weeds, Sommerfeld said.

Though Palmer amaranth has also appeared in conservation
plantings in other states, it has been hard to narrow down the
source.

Farmers of commercial crops have been keen to sign up for
the federal conservation program to supplement incomes as grain
prices fall. The USDA said on Tuesday it expects net farm income
to fall in 2017 to its lowest level since 2002.

The USDA told Reuters it was aware of the problem present in
seed mixes, but does not monitor seed lots purchased by
participants.



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