Farmers Replace Corn with Weeds, and Make Money Doing It

burdock flower photo

Image credit: sootyskye, under Creative Commons license.

It's hard to make a living when you work on the land. But whether it's paying farmers not to till their soil, or reviving volunteerism as an integral part of farming, there are options for making farming more profitable and more earth-friendly at the same time. When one farmer's corn fields were becoming overrun by weeds, and the bank was threatening to pull the plug, he hit upon an unlikely solution—get rid of the corn, and cultivate the 'weeds'.Recounted by Judith Goldsmith over at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, the story revolves around an Iowa farmer who approached agricultural consultant Richard Alan Miller for some help. Goldsmith let's Alan Miller takes up the story:

"He had 400 acres in Iowa in corn, which was infested with burdock. He had tried everything -- spraying, everything -- and he couldn't get rid of the stuff. The bank was threatening him with foreclosure.

He came to a workshop I'd given at Charlie Walter's Acres U.S.A. conference in Kansas City, and got in touch with me. When the bank heard I'd been hired to consult, the banker gave him a one-year stay of execution. I advised him to: sell half his land; sell half of his capital equipment; and then I had him get rid of his noxious weed -- which was the corn! -- and grow what nature wanted him to grow, which was the burdock!"

While the idea of growing burdock may seem strange to some, it turns out that it fetches premium prices on Asian markets in Chicago, especially when sold fresh. Within one year the farmer was out of foreclosure, and after three years he owned his land outright and was buying back his old land to grow timber.

Goldsmith goes on to discuss other success stories where farmers have diversified into high-value, low-input herbs such as comfrey and chickweed for specialist markets, many of which are considered weeds that grow almost without need of input from the farmer.

Of course it goes without saying that this kind of niche marketing falls apart pretty quickly once everyone is doing it, and while burdock may have its uses, it is unlikely it will ever feed the world. But Goldsmith suggests that those farmers wanting to move away from growing commodity crops and toward becoming more self-sufficient—high-value, sustainable niche crops like wild herbs can be a great way to finance that transition.

It's also a good reminder to us all that some of the most maligned plants may be a hidden resource. (And some of the most commonly grown plants may be a weed in disguise!)

More on Permaculture and Low-Impact Farming
Volunteerism as Backbone of Farming
From Arid, Salty Desert to Permaculture Garden: Greening the Desert Revisited (Video)
Permaculture, and a Mini-Movie

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