About a year ago I wrote in this space about the Land-Grant Death Spiral. I heard from a number of former colleagues in academia, mostly commiserating about how bad things were for agriculture at land-grant universities.
I recently did an informal poll of some of those folks and some I didn't hear from after the earlier column, hoping things were getting better. Things haven't gotten better. Land-grant institutions, there's one in every state, are the glue that holds the infrastructure of modern agriculture together.
The infrastructure is cracking from age of scientists, indifference by people paid to make these programs more efficient, and by a general lack of understanding and appreciation of what these professionals do.
In recent years, even pest management legends aren't routinely replaced when they retire or leave university life. Instead, they are hired back as part time employees. This keeps the knowledge base available to some degree, but leaves no spot for young scientists to learn the ropes. It is in most cases the best solution for the university, because otherwise the position wouldn't be filled and there would be no one to continue the work. The result is there is an abundance of knowledge, held by a handful of scientists, all of whom can retire at any time or are in demand by industry for higher paying, less restrictive jobs.
Let's take weed scientists as a group. I know several around the Southeast, who either came through Auburn University while I was there or whom I knew through professional meetings. I always thought their value to taxpayers of their state was not well understood and not well appreciated by their university. I'm not here to point out the merits of weed science, rather to point out that they are an integral part of the infrastructure of agriculture.
How will losing well-experienced weed scientists impact on the future of row crop production in the Southeast?
Herbicide resistance is becoming the leading production problem of many growers in the region. In the past, when resistance developed to one product, the grower could simply move on to the next one. Now that's not an option. Other than a few NPO products, I don't know of any family of herbicides that doesn't have some level of resistance.
A weed world dominated by over-use of glyphosate has kept many farmers in business, allowed countless others to increase the size of their operation, and has left little new chemistry in the pipeline.
Finding new ways to use old products, non-partisan evaluation of future products, now that chemical companies see a market potential, adapting old production practices like tillage, and a myriad of other production challenges, will be in large part left to weed scientists at land-grant universities around the country.
Lack of support from university administration, agricultural commodity groups, farmers indifference, and the lure of more money and resources from private companies or higher level non-ag positions within the university, are constant threats that cause weed scientists to move on to greener fields, literally and figuratively.
The tally of weeds resistant to glyphosate continues to mount across the Southeast, and it's not endemic to our region — it's worldwide. As growers shift to other products, over-use is a bigger threat to resistance. Multiple products sold in multiple markets doesn't mean multiple modes of action. There are over 20 ALH-inhibiting herbicides labeled for use on crops grown in the Southeast.
You can go right down the line of pest management specialties, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides — all are plagued with resistance issues and a lack of new products with different modes of actions.
As farmland numbers stay stable and farmer numbers continue to drop, some in academia contend this is a signal that fewer agronomists, pathologists, etc are needed. That's about as logical as fighting for peace. Fact is fewer farmers, farming more acres, with less labor support, don't have time or resources to do their own on-farm testing to determine which products or technologies are best for them to use.
Even for farmers who are technologically advanced and get production information from multi-state university sources, don't forget where that online information comes from. It's the same men and women who help keep county and regional agriculture agents informed, who visit farms regularly, participate in countless industry meetings, and in most cases still teach a class or two. These folks are not in it for the money.
The internet is a good tool for disseminating their information, but not yet capable of generating the data needed to keep agriculture growing, nor driving the truck to check grower fields or conduct meetings. In many cases Web sites and e-mail monitoring takes more time than phone calls and letters used to take.
Talking about this over lunch recently with a Virginia farmer, I mentioned some of these problems associated with agricultural Extension and research. He said he couldn't farm without the support he gets from his county agent and from scientists at the nearby Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center. He asked what he should do to let people in charge know how valuable these folks are to him. I suggested he give his agent a hug, pat on the head and tell him how valuable he is. I suspect letters and e-mails to university officials and politicians would do more good, but a hug couldn't hurt.