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Sociology and herbicide-resistant weeds

Think weed management strategies are all about agronomy? There are other factors

Would you tell your neighbour how to farm? Not likely. On the other hand, what if this reluctance to “stick your nose in” was creating a real barrier to the adoption of practices that could help slow down the spread of herbicide resistant weeds?

Scientists have a word for this way of thinking. They call it “individualism”, which basically means farmers’ belief that each individual farmer knows what is best for their farm and should be allowed to make these decisions without interference from others. It’s not a term they just plucked out of the air. An 2015 interdisciplinary study on weed resistance that brought together 10 focus groups of farmers from Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas, and surveyed 839 farmers from 28 U.S. States, identified that individualism is a key factor influencing farmers ideologies that create a barrier to the adoption of Integrated Weed Management (IWM) strategies to help deal with herbicide resistance issues.

Ideology of the individual

“An ideology of the individual has really grown over the past 50 years, and is strong in North America compared to other parts of the world,” says sociology professor Dr. Raymond Jussaume, of Michigan State University, one of the researchers involved in the study. “If you look 150 years ago the West was settled by communities. But we’ve created this ideology of the individual and bought into it. There has been a decline of a lot of organizations that used to bring people together like co-operatives. Many farmers don’t talk to their neighbours any more. There is a strong belief that ‘I’ve got to do it on my own,’ and anytime a problem arises it raises the spectre of somehow they’re not a good farmer. It’s an important micro-level factor.”

It’s not that farmers aren’t concerned about herbicide resistance, but there are all kinds of economic and sociological factors that exert tremendous pressure on their weed management decisions. It’s vital that farmers and everyone involved in the agricultural industry better understand these factors, so that they can develop effective, community-based solutions to the issue of herbicide resistance management.

“There are certain structural conditions that influence farmers’ decision making, such as grain prices and how that affects their ability to do certain things because they only get so much for the grain, so they have to figure out how to allocate their resources,” says Jussaume. “Then there are societal pressures. I have colleagues looking at nitrogen management, fertilizer management and the effect of pesticides on pollinators. Each one of these issues is studied separately and is complex on its own. But the farmer, all of a sudden, has to juggle all these at a very micro level. How do they decide what to focus on? Is it their weed issue, soil fertility, a plant pathogen that’s in the soil, or labour issues? Part of the frustration of farmers is every other week they get a survey, or a team of regulators or whoever saying how come you’re not doing enough about X, or don’t you understand there’s a problem with Y?”

No silver bullet

At the same time, most farmers seem to want to believe there is a new silver bullet just around the corner in terms of a new chemical solution to herbicide resistance. This “technological optimism” seems to be a reflection of modern agriculture and its reliance on technology to increase productivity without exerting undue pressure on the farmers’ limited time and financial resources.

As an Iowa grower participating in one of the study’s focus groups put it: “I think we’re all hoping somewhere in that chemistry, there’s something that comes around that’s a new version. Yeah, stall long enough, maybe they’ll figure something out, give us another product.”

Even though farmers in the study expressed their concerns about relying on new technology as a permanent solution to problems such as herbicide resistance for the long term, they still preferred to hang their hopes on a new, simple weed management chemical to come along rather than on other IWM strategies.

“And chemicals has [sic] changed everything to the point where, you know, an extremely large operation with not much manpower can farm a lot of acres, because they are — we have all become — chemical reliant. And to move away from that culture is going to be difficult,” said another Iowa farmer.

Co-operative approach needed

Farmers are well aware that herbicide resistance is a regional issue that needs to have a co-operative, co-ordinated approach, but they are often unwilling to communicate with their neighbours about the issue. “While part of this attitude can be attributed to the notion that every farmer is doing their best and doesn’t need to be told how to manage their farm, there also appears to be a fear that discussing herbicide-resistant weeds with neighbours may become a problem for the original complainant. Growers fear that they may be criticized for their own management practices if they point out a neighbour’s herbicide-resistant weeds,” says Jussaume in a paper about the study recently published in Choices Magazine Volume 31(4) — a publication of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association. “Yet, farmers also recognize the need for improved cooperation.”

In reality there is no silver bullet to the problem of resistance management, but there is a need for a process that is more communal and collaborative that understands the sociological, economic and other factors influencing farmers and involves everyone in finding solutions, rather than apportioning blame.

“People get frustrated when you can’t give them the answer, but there are no simple solutions, it’s a constant, creative, learning process,” says Jussaume. “There’s first going to have to be a shared sense among not just farmers, but everybody involved in agriculture, that collectively, we did things that led to this problem. It doesn’t mean we were trying to do it, or were doing bad things, but we overused certain products in certain ways and everybody at the time loved it. But now we need to take a step back and share the responsibility for what has happened, and if we do that, maybe we can share the responsibility for coming up with some creative solutions.”

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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