Black Stem Rust | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Black Stem Rust

Dec 21, 2019

The Jeffersonian vision of an ordered landscape--private property bounded according to section-range-township--breaks down when stressed by competing visions and unruly ecology. One farmer’s drainage for private property improvement spills water onto the neighbors. My failure to control noxious weeds prompts a visit from the township man packing a sprayer, and a follow-up tax notice.

These sorts of conflicts of property rights versus the public good are the stuff of agricultural history. How we define the issues, how we resolve them, these things tell us what kind of people we are. They also are just fascinating, because they involve the workings of elements and creatures and processes at the grassroots. Maybe I am a little weird about this, but you show me a historian without obsessive curiosities, and I’ll show you a historian without a life.

On the open range, private property rights collided. Herdsmen had cattle and sheep they wanted to run at large, whereas farmers had crops that were vulnerable to free-ranging beasts. Progress and the common good led to herd laws and division fences, which may not always make good neighbors, but they keep the cows out of the corn.

In the twentieth century bovine tuberculosis raised the necessity of protecting herd owners from infection by their neighbors’ animals, leading to government intervention, herd condemnations, and lots of hard feelings.

Russian thistles, Canada thistles, flickertail gophers, soil drifting, pesticide drift--the catalog of neighborly controversies stretches from earliest settlement to present day, with most such running disputes, not all of them, eventually being resolved in the cause of the common good.

Now here’s one you probably haven’t heard about: the black stem rust, the bane of grain farmers a century ago. As with many ecological problems in agriculture, this one was a mystery at first, until mycologists worked out the life cycle of the fungus involved.

Black stem rust develops on barberry bushes, those prickly staples of domestic landscaping, in the spring. Then during the growing season it hops to growing grain crops to enter its red stage, which is followed by the visible destruction of crop in the black stage. After overwintering in the stubble, the rust appears again on barberry in the spring.

Unless, of course, you intervene by destroying the barberry bushes--which had been intentionally planted by some happy horticulturalist to beautify a property! Someone is going to be unhappy about this.

Into the breach stepped our hero of prairie agricultural science, Professor Henry Luke Bolley, of North Dakota Agricultural College. Bolley claimed the distinction of being the first party to advocate publicly the total destruction of the barberry in the United States in order to protect our wheat farmers.

That could not happen, you already have guessed, but Bolley gave it a try. His scouts scoured the towns and the countryside for treacherous barberry bushes. College boys assisted property owners in grubbing out the bushes and applying a Carthaginian remedy: pouring salt on the roots. State law and federal assistance entered the fray.

“Help!”, declares one of the posters in the Bolley Collection at NDSU Archives. “Destroy an enemy of the wheat crop! Dig out every barberry bush!” Under penalty of law.

What’s a mild-mannered professor doing digging up people’s gardens? I’ll tell you the story next time.

-Tom Isern