Profiles in Conservation
A Steward of Native Flora
Vermont-based small business has regional reach and profound lessons for us all.
By Glenn Rosenholm
(Author’s Note: I first learned of conservationist Mike Bald some time back while reading a well-written article by Katie Jickling on the Web site Seven Days Vermont.)
Mike Bald is a small business owner in a small, quaint town in east-central Vermont. He owns a modest home near the town center of Royalton (population 2,773), and his business is the control of nonnative invasive plants.
At first glance, his work is simplistic: he pulls weeds for customers. At a deeper level though, his business model and philosophy for managing the environment are profound and far reaching.
Ten months out of the year you can often find his lean figure in a field somewhere, alone and bent over, pulling invasive weeds, like garlic mustard or giant hogweed, out of the ground by the truckload. That is how he makes his living.
It is a workout, he will tell you, and one that helps him to prolong his youthful vigor better than he would otherwise do sitting at a desk all day. On the phone during our January 2017 interview, his voice sounded more like that of a millennial than someone in his fifties.
When not pulling, flaming, or solarizing weeds (see photos, this page), Bald might be found at an environmental conference in Massachusetts, or elsewhere in New England. He will likely be wearing a T-shirt imprinted with his company’s name, “Got Weeds?”
His marketing strategy is straightforward: show up at places where colleagues and potential customers gather, and talk to them.
Bald is not in business just to make money. For him, it has a greater purpose. He works to restore balance to ecosystems by reducing the impacts that invasive plants have on native flora.
“In a nutshell, my mission is to demonstrate that alternative weed control techniques are economically viable compared to traditional, herbicide-intensive methods,” he said.
He takes his work very seriously.
One of his biggest influencers was Les Mehrhoff, a prominent naturalist and advocate, formerly of the University of Connecticut. Mehrhoff passed away in 2010.
Bald said about Mehrhoff, “He put his whole life into invasive species research and into inspiring others. I only saw him speak once, but I run into people, and they all reference some previous connection with him. Even though I only met him once, his reach went beyond his actions of the moment. His legacy carries forward, beyond his life.”
“Rachel Carson is the same way,” he added. Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ and other writings are credited in Wikipedia with advancing the global environmental movement.
Bald got into his line of work, like many people, through a somewhat circuitous route. He didn’t just wake up one day in his teens and decide he wanted to pull weeds for a living. He does confess, however, to a lifelong inability to resist the magnetic pull of the outdoors.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my folks, my brothers, my own two boys, my ex-wife, and lots of colleagues. I’m a little ‘out-there’ maybe, but people have always put up with that. It was always okay for me to come home filthy, smelling like a goat, clothes ripped here and there. Climbing trees, cliff-diving, thrashing around in the woods was never discouraged.”
“I think that’s a little different today. People hesitate to let their kids get dirty. There’s almost a fear of the natural world. Bill McKibben highlighted this disconnect in 1989 with his book, ‘The End of Nature’—a very perceptive piece of writing. So I’m definitely grateful for a lifetime of tolerance and accommodation by others,” he said.
Born in Philadelphia, Bald moved around every year or two as a kid in a military family. Then came the college education. “I earned a general biology degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1988. It was a B.S.,” he said. “If I had a focus, it was subcellular.”
Next, he went into the Army for several years.
“From 1988 to 1992, I served in the Army Combat Engineers. My service was mostly in Germany. One thing the military taught me was how to read the landscape. Some people read books; other people read the landscape,” he added. “I learned to read the landscape and developed an understanding of what dynamics might be underway.”
After finishing his stint in the military, Bald lived in three more places across the United States, married and began a family, and finally landed in Vermont in late 2001. He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service, Eastern Region, Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests.
“I was on the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] Team. I did NEPA work as the database and publications guy. I was not the lead in charge of the team. I was more the behind-the-scenes guy.”
“Of my 9 years on the Green Mountain National Forest, I was also on the fisheries crew and an invasive species project. Invasive species [work] was fairly informal. I led a management project to eradicate Japanese knotweed with manual methods, and supported the forest botanist on other invasive species management projects. The last thing I did, with a colleague, was to kick off a sustainability team on the National Forest,” he said.
“In 2008–2010, I was periodically driving down to Massachusetts and listening to brilliant presentations on soil health, land care, and organic agricultural practices,” he said. “I’m working in central Vermont, driving to Massachusetts several times a year and while driving home to Vermont I keep thinking to myself: ‘Why don’t we have that organically acceptable perspective here regarding problematic, landscape-scale invasive plants?’ Sure, Vermont has organic practitioners and NOFA, the National Organic Farming Association, but I saw a big hole and decided to step up and fill it.”
Bald then caught the entrepreneurial bug, so to speak. He left the Forest Service in early 2011 and started his own business at 43 years old.
“I think it ties into what made me start the company,” he said of his desire to seek a career with deeply enduring impacts.
“I started Got Weeds? 6 years ago (in 2011), and I’m beginning my seventh growing season. For me, time is measured in growing seasons, not calendar years,” he added.
Interestingly, he said safety is his primary goal in weed management. “My biggest issue is public safety, [relating to] photo-activated sap.” Two weeds in particular, wild parsnip and giant hogweed, have a type of sap that reacts to sunlight and moisture. The sap is toxic to humans and can cause skin burns and blisters.
“I do work on wild parsnip right in Durham, NH,” he added. “To me, it’s all about the danger and the risk to children with that wild parsnip and giant hogweed.” New York has at least 1,000 sites of giant hogweed. They have a designated task force.
Surprisingly, his one-man operation spans nearly 250 miles, from Lake Champlain almost to the Atlantic Ocean. “And people will call for help from Michigan, Arkansas, New York—great conversations. My geography for project work ranges from Durham, NH, to the islands of Lake Champlain. I can literally see Canada from there,” he said.
“My second concern for me [about invasive plants] is that they basically shut down [native] plant regeneration at ground level. You have vines that do a carpet along the ground and cover literally every inch of ground. There’s a smother effect. Then, simultaneously you have vines going up to the canopy and literally ripping down the trees. So you get a one-two effect: total canopy destruction while having no regeneration of new saplings. Oriental bittersweet goes up into the canopy, and black swallow wort is the ground ‘smotherer.’ A lot of times it’s not a single species. It’s often a half dozen species that create an accumulative effect.”
When asked how long the effects of his weeding lasts, he replied, “In a perfect world eradication is complete, the land is transitioned, and off we go. In the real world, seeds from the soil seed bank continue germinating for 5–10 years. And you also get carry-in to the site from vehicles, deer, geese, the wind, and other sources.”
“The goal is not a clean landscape,” he added. “The goal is to get past the overwhelmed, dysfunctional, intimidating situation to a plateau which is reasonably accessible and manageable. It’s just like a house. You can let your house go into disrepair for 20 years, or you can do annual maintenance at much lower cost.”
“That ties into the whole theme of me walking away,” he added. “I get people over the hump and position them to carry on or hire their kids or their neighbors who can then do the work, which includes monitoring; and they can grow their connection to the land. Since I don’t use chemicals, landowners can be right there with me, alongside if they wish for a couple hours, to pick up on the efficiencies and nuances of the control work. I have no shortage of business, so there’s certainly no reason for me to keep secrets!”
Bald described the stewardship outcomes that he strives for in his work.
“My goal is solid, relevant land stewardship. There are dozens of ways to define stewardship. Caring for resources is one way. But my definition is simple enough: ‘Stewardship equals presence.’”
He added, “Aldo Leopold said that with every stroke of the axe, you’re leaving your signature on the land.” Leopold was a highly influential and historically important conservationist. Coincidentally, he was also a former Forest Service employee.
“My take is your actions on the land define your presence. If you come once a year, just to look and not get dirty, that says a lot about your notion of presence. Conversely, if you’re there all the time and truly engaged, that says something different about your notion of presence,” Bald added.
“In what I do, I favor the latter, to be engaged on your land,” he said. “The goal is I show up on someone’s property, assess their property, and probe them through questions to clarify their vision for the land. Then I go into my head and find out what we need to do for the next 3, 5, or 10 years, to move their land in that direction. My clients, admirably, want their signature on the land to be etched in sweat rather than synthetic toxins.”
Bald’s end goal
“The beauty of stewardship is that at some point I can walk away and leave these people more empowered to manage their land,” he added. “They always have me as a resource if needed, though.”
He said he gets a great deal of satisfaction from the results of his work.
“It is truly amazing to see that. The feeling that I get is fulfillment for a job well done and for a landowner who is now more connected.”
Bald added, “I’m building bonds, even spiritual bonds, between people and their land. It all comes together. Feeling fulfilled is priceless. I think there is a lot of potential on the land with invasive species eradication or control work feeding into the local economy—the art scene, medicinal plants, animal forage, lots to still discover.”
Today, his business has reached maximum capacity for one person.
“I don’t really advertise anymore; it’s more important to promote and extend the message. I go to conferences to build my professional knowledge. I wear a company T-shirt, which is my advertising, and I engage people in deep conversation. That’s how we learn from each other and build relationships. Demonstrating that we can cooperatively manage land with a long-term perspective and a nonchemical approach is how I advertise.”
Bald shared advice for others wanting to start their own business.
“When I work for the Town of Stowe Land Trust, I build a relationship. I do good work, and they put my name out there, mention me in their newsletter, and business just happens. The hard work is the first 2 years. Don’t even think about making money, just build working relationships. You should start making money in year 3 or 4, if things go well. You’ll be in a good place and in good company.”
He emphasized, “It’s crazy important that people invest in growing their knowledge and building relationships, as opposed to just a one-time visit. All of my clients are long-term relationships.”
Bald still fondly remembers his time spent on the National Forest.
“In the Forest Service, I did learn from the professionals around me. I’m grateful for this. I learned how to run a chain saw and to write professional documents. I did a couple wildland fire tours out West.”
Of his path to professional growth today, he said, “I don’t look for certifications. Everything I do goes into the basket of life experiences. You do demolitions in the Army, and you learn how to be safe. You learn how to keep all of your fingers.”
Despite the focus of his work, invasive plant control and eradication, he is hesitant to describe it in terms of a battle of good versus evil plants in native ecosystems.
Paraphrasing a famous quote from English Philosopher Thomas Hobbs, Bald added, “It’s a slippery slope when we say things in the natural world are inherently good or bad. The reality is, there is no good or bad in nature. There are only consequences.”
“Twenty-five years into my professional career(s), I’m still reading the land, but more in an effort to establish my presence and to be the one driving the actions,” he said.
His complex understanding and relationship with the land is profound, far beyond that of an average person. And if you chance to meet him in a field or at a conference one day, he will be eager to share his perspectives of the natural world and our place in it.
Perhaps the next time you’re out on your land, pulling weeds in the dirt, reflect on the story of Mike Bald. You might be reminded that your labors are more important and far reaching than you thought.
For more information on Mike Bald’s views on sustainability and his eradication techniques, visit: www.Choosewiselyvt.wordpress.com.
All photos courtesy of Mike Bald.