Department of Horticulture vegetable specialist Stephen Reiners (left) role-plays a grower who thinks his leafless peas were damaged by herbicide.  Turns out the particular variety of pea he planted has no leaves.

Department of Horticulture vegetable specialist Stephen Reiners (left) role-plays a grower who thinks his leafless peas were damaged by herbicide. Turns out the particular variety of pea he planted has no leaves. See end of article for more images.

FREEVILLE, N.Y. – The staff members at Cornell University’s Thompson Vegetable Research Farm usually spend their summer killing weeds. But in one field this season, they planted them.

That’s because the facility was the site of this year’s Northeastern Collegiate Weed Science Contest, and the field served as a series of questions for the more than 100 students who gathered on July 27 to test their problem-solving skills and engage in friendly competition.

“That’s the most competitors we’ve had in recent history – more than double what we usually get,” says Hilary Sandler, president of the Northeastern Weed Science Society, sponsor of the event. The students represented 10 schools from as far away as Florida and Illinois.

In addition to a written test, the students:

  • Identified weeds, sometimes based only on their seeds or newly sprouted plants.
  • Calibrated spraying equipment.
  • In that specially planted field, sleuthed what herbicides had been applied to plots based on their effects on the crops and weeds.

Perhaps the most challenging event of the competition had the students rotating through plots where volunteers role-played growers with crop troubles. “They get some serious problem-solving experience,” observes Sandler, who is also an IPM specialist with the University of Massachusetts, and played a cranberry grower plagued by a parasitic weed called dodder. “All of our scenarios come from real-life situations. It’s like CSI – only with weeds.”

Five different schools finished in the top three places in the graduate and undergraduate divisions. But for most students, the event was more about making new friends, networking with future colleagues and the joys of testing their mettle against the challenges top weed scientists thought up to try to stump them. “These students are future faculty and leaders in industry,” says Sandler. “And they really seem to be having a good time.”

As is the tradition, the host school Cornell did not field a team. “With an event like this, there really is way too much of a home-field advantage,” says Robin Bellinder, weed scientist in Cornell’s Department of Horticulture, who along with Toni DiTommaso and Russ Hahn in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences spearheaded the event.

Other schools participating were Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, The Ohio State University, the University of Florida, the University of Guelph (Ontario Canada), the University of Illinois, the University of Maryland and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

See also: Weeding Out the Competition in Cornell Alumni Magazine.

In a specially planted field, competitors prepare to determine which herbicides were applied based on symptoms displayed by crops and weeds.

In a specially planted field, competitors prepare to determine which herbicides were applied based on symptoms displayed by crops and weeds.

In the sprayer calibration competition, students demonstrate their skills in setting up equipment to deliver precise rates.

In the sprayer calibration competition, students demonstrate their skills in setting up equipment to deliver precise rates.

Brian Caldwell, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences (center), plays a farmer who corn was damaged by geese.

Brian Caldwell, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences (center), plays a farmer who corn was damaged by geese.

Students identified weeds, sometimes based just on the seed or newly sprouted seedling.

Students identified weeds, sometimes based just on the seed or newly sprouted seedling.

The competition started with a written test.

The competition started with a written test.

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