Farmer in May Township Wages War on Buckthorn and Wins

“It’s never been enough to make a living from, but more work than a hobby farm,” Dale Anderson explains when talking about the 75-acre farm in May Twp.  that he and his wife Nancy have owned for more than 30 years. They grew corn, hay, and oats, using draft horses to work the fields, in addition to raising chickens, goats and cows. Meanwhile, Dale maintained a career in banking and Nancy worked as a teacher. Though they’ve cut back a lot on their farming in recent years, they still sell eggs and honey, as advertised by a sign on Olinda Trail at the end of their driveway, and have applied to participate in the new Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

Swing by the Anderson’s farm to pick up a dozen eggs and learn about how to control invasive buckthorn.

About eight years ago, Dale embarked on a battle against invasive buckthorn, which had taken over most of the woods on his property, creating an impenetrable thicket. Buckthorn is a non-native, invasive shrub that is notoriously difficult to control. It leafs out early in the spring and retains green leaves late into the fall, giving it a competitive advantage over native Minnesota trees and shrubs. Its purple berries have a diuretic quality, which leads the birds that eat the berries to quickly spread its seeds. Worst of all, it possesses a maddening ability to re-sprout if it is cut down, with even more branches than before.

Buckthorn retains green leaves late into the year, long after most trees and shrubs go dormant for the winter.

At first, Dale began pulling up the buckthorn in his woods, roots and all, so that it couldn’t regrow. He quickly became discouraged by how little progress he was making, however, and began wondering if there might be an easier way. One day he struck up a conversation with a guy from the power company who was clearing out the right-of-way and he learned about a technique known as basal bark spraying. The idea is to spot-treat the base of the buckthorn shrubs with herbicide so that only they are affected and not the other trees and plants nearby. Dale tried it out and discovered he could cover a relatively large area of land in only a couple of hours, allowing him to finally make headway in the buckthorn battle.

Today, virtually no buckthorn remains on the Anderson’s farm and Dale is able to control new seedlings that inevitably pop up with only a few hours of effort each year. The tools he uses include a 2-gallon backpack sprayer (purchased at Ace Hardware), a bottle of triclopyr herbicide (Hugo Feed Mill or Houles Farm, Garden & Pet), and a can of diesel fuel, which he uses as a mixing agent to dilute the herbicide and help it move through the bark into the plant. To get the right proportions, he mixes 4-gallons of diesel fuel with about 0.5-gallons of herbicide. Dale estimates that the total cost ends up being about $10 per gallon for the mixed solution; with a full backpack, he can cover a large swath of woods in about four hours.

Dale mixes herbicide with diesel fuel and applies it to the buckthorn with a backpack sprayer.

When spraying buckthorn, Dale is careful to work around nearby maples, oaks and cherries and also avoid spraying the ground where herbicide could be taken up by the roots of nearby plants. If there is a tree he wants to protect, he’ll often pull up the buckthorn seedlings nearby and only spray the ones at least one foot away. However, he also points out large buckthorn growing right next to birch and oaks on his property that he was able to successfully kill without harming the trees nearby.

Though Dale Anderson has found basal bark treatment to be extremely effective, he still cautions that buckthorn management is a multi-year project. “After you’ve sprayed the buckthorn, it will be two to three weeks before the leaves begin to wilt. It will be six weeks before they’re completely brown and dead.” Even then, the buckthorn will remain standing dead for one to two years before it finally falls down. In the beginning, Dale started by treating a few acres of land each year. The year after treating, new buckthorn seedlings usually came up like grass. So, he waited a couple of years until they were larger and then sprayed them again. “After that,” he says, “you only need to check on the woods once every four years and it is pretty easy to maintain.” Now, he spot-treats one section of his property each year, using a rotational approach to keep the work manageable.

Anderson has successfully controlled buckthorn on his 75-acre farm and is moving on to help his neighbors. 

Now that he’s vanquished the buckthorn on his own property, Dale has moved on to helping neighbors attack buckthorn on theirs. “A lot of people get frustrated after trying to clear buckthorn by hand, or they’re reluctant to use herbicide, so they do nothing instead. But the basal bark spraying allows you to work very quickly, using only a little bit of herbicide.” The result is healthier woods, with better habitat for wildlife and more native wildflowers. Best of all, once the buckthorn is gone, people can actually walk through and enjoy their woods.