Katie Dentzman

University of Idaho postdoctoral research associate Katie Dentzman wants to learn and share the “human dimension” of herbicide resistance to help farmers find solutions.

MOSCOW, Idaho — Some people blame farmers for weeds that have developed resistance to herbicides.

“If they would just do XYZ, then it would be solved,” is the sentiment, University of Idaho research associate Katie Dentzman said.

It’s an attitude Dentzman admits she once held, until she talked with growers face-to-face.

“When you’re sitting in a focus group with this farmer who everyone respects, and he starts to break down and cry because of where he sees it affecting his own farm, but also farming in his community and the people he cares about, that really changes how you think about the issue,” she said. “These people really, really care and they are trying their best. There are certain social structures in place that constrain them and how much they can do.”

Dentzman wants to help farmers adapt to those structures, and to change them.

She works as a social scientist with Washington State University weed researchers Drew Lyon and Ian Burke to help farmers combat increased herbicide resistance in weeds.

Dentzman is “one of the foremost world experts” on the social aspects of herbicide resistance, Burke said.

“Weed resistance is just as much a socio-economic problem as it is a basic weed science problem,” Burke said. “I can come up with lots of technical long-term solutions, but if there’s a social reason why they’re not acceptable, they might not be adopted. Having a sociologist help us understand social barriers to adoption is critical.”

Dentzman has worked on the topic for six years. As part of her doctoral dissertation, she worked with a national research team looking at herbicide resistance, including focus groups and a survey. She also works with the Weed Science Society of America.

Growers are more likely to act when they think they actually may have herbicide resistant weeds, she said. They can either rely more on herbicides, or they can get involved with their community and learn about integrated weed management, which is more likely to find success.

But how do you get a farmer concerned about resistant weeds if they don’t have them?

It’s important to help farmers see the problem, at conferences or through test plots that show the differences in weed management, she said.

“It’s trying to bridge that gap between, ‘I know it’s out there’ and actually seeing and feeling the repercussions,” Dentzman said.

Dentzman points to “techno-optimism,” an attitude common to all of society, not just limited to farmers. It’s the idea that no matter what problems exist in culture, they can always be solved through innovation.

Farmers might say, “The next new herbicide will come out, and then it will be solved,” Dentzman said.

But farmers are being pushed into a corner where they don’t see any other options except for herbicides, Dentzman said.

“They’re kind of being forced into this techo-optimism, saying, ‘If I don’t believe this, I’m going to have to believe I’m going to lose the farm’ or ‘I’m going to be kicked out of this,’” she said.

The researchers want to help growers learn that the next thing might be already available, but it’s not necessarily a herbicide.

The point is to show farmers there are affordable, more imaginative ways to act, Dentzman said.

Simply asking what they need is a big part of the solution, she said. She wants to take that information back to the university and build the team that can give it to them.

Ryanne Pilgeram, UI associate sociology professor, said she’s dreamed of working with someone like Dentzman for a decade.

“She’s such a clear thinker, but a big thinker,” Pilgeram said. “She’s just really brilliant. I can’t imagine her work won’t be influential and important to agricultural policy, because she’s working on projects that connect directly to farmers.”

Dentzman, Burke and Lyon will talk about their efforts, and then host a listening session Nov. 15 during the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in Spokane.

Dentzman hopes to hear from growers willing to host a meeting for other farmers in their area.

“I’m not an expert in herbicide resistance, and I’m not supposed to be,” she said. “I want to go and talk to the people who are experiencing this and hear from them, because they’re the experts in what they are experiencing.”

This story was first published Nov. 8, 2019.

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