CANBY, Minn. — Mark Lacek is no troublemaker, but he’s no pushover either.

This past fall, he declined to accept a waiver of liability for a seed company that supplied him with cover crop seed in 2019 that turned out to be contaminated with Palmer amaranth seed.

Lacek farms in Lincoln County with his wife, Mary Kay. The couple has sold registered Red Angus cattle for 20 years under the name M&M Acres. The Laceks farm with an uncle, and a son and daughter-in-law who are in the registered Hereford business. Together, the families farm about 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, pasture and some small grains.

The Lacek family couldn't get all of their corn and soybeans planted in 2019 and they needed hay. So in June they bought some proso millet from a "pretty reputable company" from South Dakota with which they’d done business previously.

"I planted it," Lacek recalls, "and a week later I got a call that said that seed has possible Palmer amaranth."

The case had been reported to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, whose officials told Lacek they had "zero tolerance" for Palmer amaranth. Lacek had "read the wicked stories" about the “monster weed,” so he knew it was serious. "I basically told them (the seed company) that I had zero tolerance for their weeds," he says.

State inspectors checked the field in Lincoln County. They'd find three Palmer amaranth plants in a 25-acre parcel, distinguishable from waterhemp because of a more slender leaf. He'd never seen one before, and says he wishes he never had.

‘No’ on waiver

Lacek says the South Dakota seed provider declined to say where the tainted seed had come from. The two parties agreed that the seedman would pay for the first "burn-down" — a combination of Roundup (glyphosate) and 2,4-D weed killers.

The seed company also paid "a fair rate" to replace the forage. "Basically, I had to chop more silage," he says.

But when the company offered to pay for a final spray-down of 2,4-D in the fall, the company owner it was contingent on Lacek signing a liability waiver. "He wanted to be done, he wanted to wrap up the 2019 year in a bow,” he says.

Lacek, who says he's not been in any other legal dispute, declined that offer.

He hasn't talked to any lawyer. "I don't want the books closed on this, basically," he says. "Once you settle you settle. That seed can lay dormant for a number of years. The final 2,4-D was out of his pocket.

"I don't know what the future holds. I think I got all of the plants. I sprayed it twice, but that's not to say it can't be a complete train wreck. I don't know what the future is on that weed."

He’ll plant Enlist beans on the acres in 2020, meaning they can be sprayed with 2,4-D.

Minnesota way

Anthony Cortilet, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture noxious weed and industrial hemp programs, declines to discuss Lacek’s situation, or even acknowledge it is being investigated.

In general, Cortilet can says that in 2014, Minnesota declared an “ag emergency” on Palmer amaranth and placed it on "eradicate list." For 2016, 2017 and 2018, landowners could get state grants to eradicate it.

Since 2016, the state has described Palmer amaranth as "prohibited, noxious weed seed." If even one Palmer amaranth seed is found in a sample of 25,000 seeds, it is illegal to sell. In those three years, they've found only a single lot that was contaminated, and none in 2019.

Denise Thiede is the section manager for the seed, noxious weed, hemp and biotechnology programs at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

"When we get an infestation in the field somewhere, and are trying to identify how it got there, in those cases we have been able to trace it back to seeds, a seed lot, or to screenings," she says.

Thiede emphasized that in this year’s cases, a Minnesota seed company self-reported, which led to an out-of-state company self-reporting. In the Houston County case, Thiede says the department flame-torched a site that was half an acre and had hundreds of Palmer amaranth plants.

Typically, the weeds are only distinguishable late in the season. If there are only a few weeds, the state will simply pull them. On larger sites, the state does "weed-torching" to destroy any seed on mature female plants, and then heat up the soil around them. On larger acreage, they use a crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota to control them.

Contrary to rumors about Lacek’s case, there are no “quarantines” on infested soils, Cortilet says, but the department uses a timeline of three years for eradication at a site. "The grower is able to harvest and move material, we would not shut down harvest by any means," he says.

State inspectors consult with farmer/landowners for annual planning. Minnesota Department of Ag staff will visit up to three times a year, identifying plants, and sending in any suspect seeds for genetic testing. After a year of managing Palmer amaranth aggressively, they have not seen a resurgence in the second year of a three-year regimen. They are watching four cases involving land where the weed was discovered on row-crop land and about 50 parcels in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture workers burn a stand of the noxious weed Palmer amaranth that was found in Houston County. Contributed photo
Minnesota Department of Agriculture workers burn a stand of the noxious weed Palmer amaranth that was found in Houston County. Contributed photo

Big ‘D’ in weeds

Thiede says no other state has been as aggressive about Palmer amaranth as Minnesota.

Minnesota created genetic testing tools for seed. They required genetic testing and are taking action.

"We are auditing seed sold in the state — testing — and we can audit a company's seed testing records to make sure that they are using genetic testing methods when required,” Thiede says.

This year's prevented-planting situation increased the amount of cover crop seed that wasn't planned-for, moving into the state, he added.

The state has three, full-time seed inspectors and other seasonal employees. Their inspection-surveillance team works from January through June and sampled and tested more cover crops than normal. This year, they collected and sampled 1,600 to 2,000 samples of major crops. Iowa doesn't inspect seed. South Dakota randomly pulls only 20 samples a year, and North Dakota pulls about 800, while Wisconsin pulls about 400.

"We look to make sure that what's on the label is truthful and reflects the quality of seed in the bag," Thiede says.