The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2011 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Sarah Alban
A laugh. A short, brown boy running to catch a girl his size. Eventually, both peek to see if the white lady with a notepad is still watching. I am. These are the kids of migrant workers, skipping around a Casey's General Store parking lot in southeastern Missouri. For miles around stretch the weed-infested cotton farms that brought their parents here from Mexico.
Mexicans farming U.S. fields is an old tale. Since signing the Bracero Treaty in 1942, the United States has been employing Mexicans in sun-scorched hand labor. Some say the backbone of U.S. agriculture is connected by Mexican cartilage.
But Mexican labor in the Bootheel opened a new chapter three years ago: In 2008, weeds proliferated, despite being showered in herbicide. Migrants entered the field to chop them out by their rubbery roots.
"They got jobs hoeing now," said Charles Parker, 2011 chairman of the National Cotton Council and a Senath, Mo., cotton farmer.
That rise in jobs is stirring a demographic change in Senath. Despite an 8.8 percent state unemployment rate, farmers can't get locals to hoe. Fact is, the work breaks not just sweats, but also backs and sometimes skin.
"It's bad to say, but it's hard to get anybody to work around here," said Omar Karnes, Senath police chief. "The white people won't do it. They flat out refuse. They won't do it."
Senath cotton farmer Lewis Rone stood at his shop with a hoe: a long, unpolished wooden stick tipped by a silver ax. Nearby idled his green-and-yellow hooded herbicide sprayer, worth the price of a 2011 Ford Ranger. But Rone gripped the hoe.
"This is weed control," he said.
Senath calls itself "cotton country." This is where white cotton tumbles by kids at Casey's like hay in an old Western. This is where across the street from Casey's, weeds tower. This is where, in short, cotton has drawn two non-natives: a Texan weed and a Mexican subculture.
Palmer pigweed, from Texas.
Thick red weeds overhang a Senath farm like a thief's fingers. Their roots snatch up water and nutrients, so they grow tall to suck up the sunlight, too.
Nutrient loss will stunt nearby cotton. The farmer's yield — and thus income — will shrink, too. These days, some call a 20 percent yield loss to pigweed a relative success story.
"There is no question that in the southern [U.S., palmer pigweed] is the most prevalent problem right now," said Kevin Bradley, associate professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri.
Pigweed reproduces lightning fast. Instead of shaking pollen onto its own seeds and regenerating in the same spot, like most weeds, male pigweed sends pollen to meet the seeds of a female, and vice versa. This is how pigweed, a Texan, has traveled states.