Mike Bald, in his business t-shirt, at work in a field of head-high wild parsnip. Photos courtesy of Mike Bald.
Mike Bald is a small business owner in east-central Vermont, and his business is the control of nonnative invasive plants. At first glance, his work is simple: he pulls weeds for customers. At a deeper level, though, his business model and chemical-free 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 sitting at a desk all day. When not pulling, flaming, or solarizing weeds, Bald might be found at an environmental conference anywhere in New England. He will likely be wearing a T-shirt imprinted with his company’s name: “Got Weeds?” Bald is not in business just to make money. For him, it has a greater purpose. He works to restore balance to ecosystems.
“In a nutshell, my mission is to demonstrate that alternative weed control techniques are economically viable compared to traditional, herbicide intensive methods,” he said.
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.”
Born in Philadelphia, Bald moved around every year before earning a biology degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1988. Next, he went into the Army for several years. “One thing the military taught me was how to read the landscape and understand 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, as the database and publications guy. “I was also on the fisheries crew,” he said, “and on 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.”
In 2008-2010, Bald would periodically travel down to Massachusetts to listen to presentations on soil health, land care, and organic agricultural practices. It was during these trips that the idea for a new business was born. “While driving home to Vermont I kept thinking to myself: ‘Why don’t we have that organically acceptable perspective here regarding problematic, landscape-scale invasive plants?’ I saw a big hole and decided to step up and fill it.”
Bald left the Forest Service in early 2011 to start “Got Weeds?” He was 43 years old.
Interestingly, he said safety is his primary goal in weed management. Two weeds in particular, wild parsnip and giant hogweed, have phototoxic sap that can cause skin burns and blisters.
“I do work on wild parsnip right in Durham, New Hampshire,” he said. “To me, it’s all about the danger and the risk to children.” His one-man operation spans nearly 250 miles, from Lake Champlain almost to the Atlantic Ocean, though he receives calls from as far away as Michigan and Arkansas.
“My second concern [about invasive plants] is that they basically shut down [native] plant regeneration at ground level,” he said. “You have vines covering literally every inch of ground. There’s a smother effect. A lot of times it’s not a single species. It’s often a half-dozen species that create a cumulative 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 that 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.”
Oftentimes, he said, his invasive-pulling work is able to get people over the hump and position them to carry on or hire their kids or their neighbors who can then do the work. “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,” he said. “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.’ 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.”
Many of his customers share this philosophy.
“My clients, admirably, want their signature on the land to be etched in sweat rather than synthetic toxins,” he said.
Despite the focus on eradication that’s at the core of his work, Bald 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 Hobbes, he points out that “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.”
Glenn Rosenholm writes a series called “Profiles in Conservation” for the US Forest Service, Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry. Northern Woodlands’ “Stewardship Story” series is sponsored by the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.