Baker fought weeds for 38 years

Jan 27, 2014 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The county's longtime weed and pest supervisor retired in December after bringing many innovations to his field.

After 38 years of battling weeds, Lars Baker hung up his sprayer Dec. 17 and retired from supervising the Fremont County Weed and Pest District.

Over nearly four decades on the job, Baker taught farmers to use new chemicals, oversaw the arrival and fight against West Nile virus, and helped pioneer using computers to fight what he calls, "out-of-place plants."

Though he has retired, Baker is still teaching others how to kill weeds and conducting research on the subject. The unofficial motto of the Weed and Pest District still seems to be on his mind: "So many weeds, so little time," Baker said.

Baker started at Weed and Pest in 1975 as assistant supervisor. Ron Cunningham was the supervisor, and they had just one other employee, a part time office assistant.

Teaching about weeds

"I guess I'm a teacher by heart. I like to share with people what I know, and I like to learn," Baker said. "I was trained by the University of Wyoming as a field ecologist so I understand why plants grow. I could apply the basic education I had."

In 1978, Cunningham moved on to the Fremont County Extension Office, and Baker took the lead at Weed and Pest, where he has been ever since. In one measure of the changes under Baker, the district now has 18 employees.

In 1975, Weed and Pest only advised farmers on how to control weeds, and the chemicals available required multiple treatments and targeted specific species.

Roundup, or glyphosate, arrived in the county a few years later.

The product was easy to use and killed everything, but cost $100 a gallon, Baker said, too much for many farmers to afford.

So, Weed and Pest started a cost-share program. Baker would check to see if farmers were planning to use it effectively, and then would give them a voucher to get the product from a dealer.

"When I came to work here in 1975, we had huge fields that were all solid Canada thistle and field bind weed," Baker said. "Today as you drive around Fremont County and see small grain fields, you don't see huge patches of Canada thistle."

West Nile

The West Nile virus arrived on the East Coast in the early 1990s and spread west, leading, eventually, to several several fatal cases in Fremont County, Baker said. The virus is spread my mosquitoes, so local mosquito control efforts had to adapt.

Municipalities had sprayed for mosquitoes before West Nile, but did so on summer afternoons. The timing was ineffective against the culex tarsalis mosquito species, which carries West Nile.

"The mosquito fogger hits the streets at 5 o'clock when culex are under a leaf or in the grass," Baker said. "It knocks others out other species... then 9:30, 10 at night, culex tarlis comes out."

Starting about 10 years ago, a state grant allowed the cities and towns to pay someone to work evenings to spray when the dangerous insects were aloft, and to extend spraying outside municipal limits as well.

Around the same time, Weed and Pest assistant supervisor Nancy Pieropan received training in trapping, identifying and testing mosquitoes for West Nile. Now, the district traps mosquitoes at sites across the count.

Pieropan picks out the culex tarsalis bugs, grinds them up, mixes them with a "reagent," and puts them in a testing device. The procedure can give residents warning that West Nile is in the area before a human case occurs, as happened in 2013.

Find and treat early

Over Baker's tenure, Weed and Pest has taken on controlling weeds on public land for other government agencies. The Wyoming Department of Transportation, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service pay the district to perform the service.

Leafy spurge, Russian knapweed, spotted knapweed, and other invasive plants can crowd out native plants to dominate a landscape. They are poor forage and yield lower range productivity, but reclaiming infested land is expensive.

Starting about 15 years ago, Baker implemented a more-efficient system he called early detection, rapid response.

Baker said, so the best strategy is stop the weeds early.

"Guys go looking for weeds and get rid of it right away before it has the chance to spread, so only a tiny percentage of land sees pesticides," he said.

Computers made the job easier.

Weed and Pest bought its first computer around 1981, Baker said. It was a Xerox 2.

The machine cut down the time it took to prepare a spreadsheet to bill a customer from two weeks to an hour, he said. Now, the same process is nearly instantaneous because the computer systems track expenditures daily.

Using computers to map weeds has helped as well, Baker said. Kim Johnson, head of Weed and Pest's geographic information systems program helped Fremont County be the first to adopt the strategy about 10 years ago, Baker said.

"We pioneered all the technology to do this," Baker said. "Today you can buy the software to do it, but back then we were writing the software."

Johnson's workers go in the field and mark weed locations on digital maps.

"As you travel down the road, the GPS is telling the computer where you are, and the computer shows an aerial photo,"Baker said. "Then you take your stylus and can draw a line around the weed patch."

Johnson compiles the information and produces maps for spray hands showing where infestations are. They go out and treat the weeds, and their sprayers automatically log the location and time, Baker said.

Over the last decade, Johnson also helped other districts implement GIS mapping for weeds, and now more than half of Wyoming does so, Baker said.

So many weeds

In his retirement, Baker plans to spend more time hunting, fishing and volunteering with his church, but the battle against weeds will continue.

"I don't plan to be idle, and so there may be some opportunities for me to continue work in my field," he said.

He is speaking at two weed-control conferences this spring and is finishing research for publication, Baker said. Finishing a history of the Fremont County Weed and Pest Control District also is a goal.

And he still gets calls from farmers asking for advice on weeds. Baker is considering going into consulting, but he finds it difficult charging for help he used to give for free, he said.

Baker also is hoping to regain his seat on the Riverton City Council, from which he recently had to resign for a technicality tied to his retirement benefit requirements. If he does rejoin the council, he plans to continue in public service.

"If I didn't get reappointed, I'd be glad to serve on a committee or something," he said. "I'd be glad to serve in any capacity."

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