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Can-Do In Kansas

Like much of the southeastern United States, Kansas is plagued with Johnsongrass — a tall and graceful weed that can thrive in even the smallest patch of disturbed soil. So widespread is this noxious invader that it poses a serious threat to the state's natural and cultivated plant resources.

Good control is a full-time job. A single plant produces up to 5,000 seeds per year — seeds that can lie dormant in the ground for up to 20 years. But Hensley is undeterred. Along with musk thistle (Carduus nutans), field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata), Johnsongrass tops her list of least-welcome weed species.

Tonya Hensley is Wabaunsee County's first female noxious weed director.

In her small corner of northeast Kansas, Wabaunsee County noxious weed director Tonya Hensley is a force to be reckoned with. One of only five female weed directors in the state, Hensley is making her mark and putting a significant dent in the spread of noxious weeds. Her chief nemesis? Sorghum halapense (L.) Pers. — the ubiquitous Johnsongrass.

Like much of the southeastern United States, Kansas is plagued with Johnsongrass — a tall and graceful weed that can thrive in even the smallest patch of disturbed soil. So widespread is this noxious invader that it poses a serious threat to the state's natural and cultivated plant resources.

Good control is a full-time job. A single plant produces up to 5,000 seeds per year — seeds that can lie dormant in the ground for up to 20 years. But Hensley is undeterred. Along with musk thistle (Carduus nutans), field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata), Johnsongrass tops her list of least-welcome weed species.

The Road to the Big Outdoors

A self-described "outdoorsy type," Hensley's route to noxious weed director was anything but direct. After managing a Topeka Wal-Mart for a dozen years, the family moved in 1995 to Alma, Kans., Wabaunsee County seat.

With 3-year-old twins at home, Hensley found a seasonal secretarial job in the county's Noxious Weed Department, assisting landowners with chemical purchases and control issues. "I didn't know what a noxious weed was when I started," laughed Hensley.

After two summers behind the desk, Hensley was so well-versed in herbicides, rates and application techniques that she was recommended for Kansas State University's noxious weed training program and received her commercial applicator's license.

She quickly put her newfound weed wisdom and growing expertise to work in the field, spraying roadsides for both the county and area townships. "I've always enjoyed being outdoors, and this job was right up my alley. I got to be outside in the summertime meeting and helping people," said Hensley. Then, in 1999, Hensley stepped into the top job as weed director — the first woman to do so in the district. In addition to a new title, Hensley also inherited several "opportunities" to improve the appearance of roadsides countywide.

Woman Vs. Weed

Johnsongrass had invaded large portions of Wabaunsee County, including stretches of Interstate 70, the most traveled road in the state. "We had been spraying for years with Roundup® and it seemed like every year we were back spraying the same areas," said Hensley.

Then a local farmer told her about Plateau® herbicide. "Richard Fehy, who farms a large acreage around here, had heard about Plateau at a farm show and asked me to order a 15-gallon drum," said Hensley. Fehy planned to spray Plateau on the Johnsongrass encroaching on his stand of big bluestem, also known as turkeyfoot, a major forage and hay grass.

The following spring, Fehy called Hensley to say his Johnsongrass was gone and invited her out to take a look. "I was very, very impressed," recalled Hensley. "At that point, I decided we were no longer putting Roundup in our trucks — we were going solely with Plateau."

Since switching to Plateau six years ago, Hensley and her crew have seen a 50 percent decrease in the number of acres affected by Johnsongrass. "We used to spray some areas for Johnsongrass every year. The summer following that first application, we didn't find nearly the infestations we'd had in the past. In many of our trouble spots, we have completely eradicated it."

"Tonya has taken the bull by the horns with Johnsongrass in Kansas," said Douglas Haller, BASF. "Where other people felt overwhelmed, Tonya went after the Johnsongrass with an aggressive program. And it shows in her roadways. She has something to be proud of."

While early spring is the optimal time for controlling Johnsongrass with Plateau, high winds and spring rains typically wreak havoc on Hensley's application schedule. By the time she and her crew finish spraying for musk thistle and bindweed every year, the Johnsongrass is well-established.

"We're not spraying when it's a foot tall," said Hensley. "We're spraying when it's already 'full boot,' and we're still getting awesome control."

Gaining Momentum

Once armed with a more effective herbicide, Hensley soon migrated toward a more hands-on approach to applications.

"We pull the truck over, get out and drag the handgun, spraying from fence to fence," said Hensley. "For a while, I had an all-women operation. We did an amazing job of cleaning up the roadsides and really got things looking nice."

"We're getting really good results with Plateau," says Hensley. "I've been very pleased with it." Today, the only areas in which Johnsongrass continues to be a problem, Hensley noted, are those where water carries in the seed.

Teamwork Is Key

Although Hensley is quick to credit her male counterparts statewide for their acceptance and support, clearly she is a natural. "I think by being the secretary here first, a lot of people got to know me before I became weed director," said Hensley. "They knew that I knew what I was talking about."

Few would argue that today. Hensley has earned the respect of her colleagues, and the faith and trust of Wabaunsee County landowners. In fact, Haller said one of Tonya's biggest strengths is the way she has created an environment of collaboration with landowners.

"Instead of throwing stones at one another, Tonya has taken the initiative to clean up the roadways," said Haller. "She can now come to the landowners and farmers and say, 'I've done my part, now it's time to do yours. And I'll help you figure out how to do it.' There's no pointing fingers … people are working together as partners."

"I like to be out there working and overseeing the spraying," said Hensley. "I take a lot of pride in people driving through my county and seeing that my roadsides look nice." Indeed, hit the road — any road — in Wabaunsee County and you will see tidy, well-maintained roadsides as the rule instead of the exception.

Sources
www.fs.fed.us
www.ksda.gov

Plateau is a registered trademark of BASF Corporation.
Roundup is a registered trademark of Monsanto Technology LLC.