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Research article examines psychology of weed control decisions

The ongoing and worsening problem of herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed has at least provided a wealth of material for researchers who before had a limited understanding of the interaction between resistant biotypes and certain weed species.

Theoretically, the interaction and relationship was understood, but nothing brings home the point like a field full of tree-sized pigweed plants, right in your own backyard.

An article that appeared recently in the journal Weed Science offers an interesting take on the issue of herbicide resistance, putting farmers “on the couch,” so to speak, and investigating the human dimension of weed management or, “Why do farmers resist adopting practices that will delay herbicide resistance, or seem to ignore new weed species or biotypes until it is too late?”

The article — written and researched by professors at Ohio State and Kansas State universities — states that weed scientists “for the most part have ignored such questions or considered them beyond their domain and expertise, continuing to focus instead on fundamental weed science and technology.” Keep in mind that this research is regionalized and promises to provide in-depth knowledge about the complex thinking of a very small sample of individuals. The study used interviews with 16 scientists and 44 farmers to gain insight into differences between expert and audience thinking.

This is important to remember because there were weed scientists, including several in the Southeast, who were sounding the alarm early on about the urgency of the resistance situation, and who did everything possible to convince growers to take action to prevent it from occurring.

 But even with a relatively small sample, the article does raise some very worthwhile considerations about why farmers make the decisions they do make, and why the decision-making process is different for conventional and organic farmers.

We all know that communication is the essential ingredient in any relationship, including that between weed scientists and farmers. However, farmers and scientists have distinctly different approaches. For example, according to the article, farmers most often learn by doing and through farmer-to-farmer networks, while scientists sometimes use technical jargon and data that may come across as not being appreciative of a farmer’s needs.

To successfully communicate the best methods of weed control, say the paper’s authors, scientists need a better understanding of farmers’ awareness and perceptions of agricultural risk.

Scientists, according to the article, see farmers as taking a reactive role to weed control, waiting too long to act, and relying heavily on herbicides.

“With a program of ‘integrated weed management,’ scientists seek to provide farmers with a systematic approach. The goal is to reduce reliance on herbicides, which have undesirable side effects including herbicide-resistant biotypes, and move to preventive methods. Such innovations, which focus on information rather than new equipment, are difficult to communicate,” states the article.

While Extension programs are commonly used to educate farmers and others about weed management techniques, the big unknown among most researchers and Extension educators is the mental process that occurs when people make decisions. To bring about a change in behavior, a message must be valuable to the recipient, say the authors.

For example, different approaches are needed for organic farmers compared to conventional farmers. Conventional farmers who were interviewed expressed an overwhelming preference for controlling weeds with herbicides, a preference that was reinforced by their extreme dislike for weeds in a field. Because of this preference, says the article, farmers can’t fully appreciate the risks associated with an over-reliance on herbicides. The conventional farmers who were surveyed also saw great risk and little benefit in preventive measures for weed control.

The authors of the paper expect that thorough two-way communication and a deeper understanding of farmer belief systems will help in developing educational programs that will result in better weed management decisions.

“By understanding how others form their views, scientists can develop effective outreach. Our science is about more than biology and ecological interactions and has a compelling human dimension,” states the article.

As has become painfully evident to everyone by now, there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around when assessing how farmers got into their current dilemma with herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed. The journal article makes a good point about the need for improved communication, but that goes for everyone involved, including those of us in the media.

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