Community Collaboration--Lessons from a Community Project

April 9, 2020

By Paul Lasley, Iowa State University Sociologist

In my last column on local efforts to manage pests in corn and soybeans I argued that “if you want different results, you have to try different approaches.”  The growing threat of pest resistance in weeds, insects, and diseases requires new levels of cooperation.  The idea is relatively simple, “some things are too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.”  The challenge is how to get local stakeholders organized to address the emerging pest resistance.  Effective management of weeds, insects and plant diseases requires a new level of cooperation among producers, agribusiness, seed companies, crop consultants and Extension agronomists given the increased incidence of pest resistance that is emerging across the state.

There is widespread understanding that populations of weeds, insects, and plant diseases have an incredible ability to develop resistance to pesticides through evolution.  Many of us can recall when glyphosate (commonly known as Round-up) became available, and hard-to-kill weeds fell victim to this new herbicide.  Now there are at least 37 weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate (Heap, 2015).   Common Iowa weeds that previously were quite sensitive to Round-up, such as marestail, waterhemp, and giant ragweed have developed resistance to glyphosate and other types of herbicides as well. 

The same trend is occurring with corn varieties that contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.  These corn plants produce a toxin that kills corn rootworm larvae.   Reports of corn rootworm resistance to the first Bt corn varieties that entered the marketplace were documented around 2010, and this past year there have been reports that rootworms in northeast Iowa are becoming resistant to the last Bt-corn variety available. Left unchecked, resistant weeds, insects, and plant diseases hold important implications for long-term farm productivity and profits in part because there are no new herbicides, Bt toxins or other technologies – ‘silver bullets’ - poised to enter the marketplace.  

While some believe that new modes of action in weed and insect management may be forthcoming, it is generally recognized that the options to manage these pests are becoming increasingly limited and more expensive.  Weeds and insects are developing resistance faster than new modes of action are being discovered.   At a pest resistance management forum this summer, some growers were regretting the need to bring out their cultivators once again to control what has been called “zombie weeds.”  While cultivation can be an effective tool in weed control and resistance management, the costs of additional trips across the fields and the possibility of additional soil erosion are big challenges for many growers.

It is in this context that the Harrison County Pest Resistance Management Team came together in 2017 to address how they could promote better pest resistance management.  The arrival of Palmer amaranth in Harrison County in 2013 inspired local agricultural leaders to come together and unite in their pest resistance management approach.  

So who is involved?

Larry Buss has been the driving force behind the Harrison County team.  However, Larry recognized he couldn’t address this problem alone, and he reached out to other Harrison County leaders.  The group includes other farmers, crop advisors, agrochemical and seed company representatives, lenders, farm and commodity group leaders and Extension personnel.   As a visionary leader, Larry’s farm experience combined with leadership positions in agriculture and natural resources, which includes a career with the Army Corps of Engineers, provided him a vision of what local leaders could do to stem resistant pests.  By involving others in the planning team who agreed that pest resistance poses a big threat to crop yields and productivity, they identified some action steps they could undertake to build awareness across the county.   The team recognized early on that their success would be dependent upon building awareness, increasing collaboration, and seeking alternative pest resistance management strategies.

What are the characteristics of the team?

The team is composed of local leaders who share a common purpose “to address pest resistance management in Harrison County.”  This group, while having some prior knowledge or familiarity with each other, were not close friends, but joined the team because they sensed that left unchecked pest resistance was a threat to row crop agriculture.  The beginnings of the team occurred with the discovery of Palmer amaranth in Harrison County near where Buss farms.  With Buss’s concern and leadership and the presence of palmer amaranth, Harrison County was selected as one of the four pilot projects that are part of the Iowa Pest Resistance Management Program.   However, the Harrison County team expanded their focus from just Palmer amaranth to include giant ragweed, waterhemp, and marestail as they knew that not many growers in the county had Palmer amaranth yet, but they all had waterhemp and marestail resistance issues and that some had resistant giant ragweed.   

An important characteristic of the team members is their recognition that this is a long-term project.  There are no easy or simple solutions, and members understand that this is a process not an event.  Each of the members express through actions and words as well as their passion and persistence in attending periodic meetings and planning activities of the team.  Interestingly there are some unspoken rules of the team that guide their deliberations.  Some of these rules include:

  1. Pest resistance is not just a Harrison County problem; it is also a statewide and national problem.  Everyone accepts the existence of the problem and understands that only by working together can it be addressed to the benefit of agriculture.
  2. The focus of their meetings is not about personal interests or identity; it’s about building relationships and community to address a common agronomic problem.  Individual interests are held in check, and discussions are focused on how the effort will help the mission of addressing comprehensive pest resistance management. 
  3. There is a strong orientation to the future that is shared by the members.  If pest resistance is  left unchecked farming in Harrison County and across the state will be more difficult and less profitable for future generations.  Several members of the team have commented on their duty to address this problem now before it becomes unmanageable.  
  4. What we’ve learned from the Harrison County Pest Management Project thus far includes:
    • Contributing their time and resources to make the project successful builds a sense of comradery and mutual support among members.  There is much pride and ownership in the project; the project belongs to them, they are responsible for planning and decisions and they are beginning to see the results of their cooperation.
    • Openness and trust demonstrated in their decision-making contributes to creating effective communication, cooperation and commitment.  Whenever a task or job needs to be done, team members willingly volunteer.   It appears there is a close connection between openness, trust, cooperation and volunteering for tasks of the team.     

Decision Making Process

  1.  The leader of the team provides a written agenda before each meeting.   This serves to alert members about next steps that need to be taken, but also serves as an invitation for members to add items and come prepared to discuss important topics.
  2. Rather than voting on agenda items or decisions, the team operates on a consensus basis.   Members vigorously discuss issues and every voice is heard.  Through modeling civil behavior, members can disagree but remain agreeable because of their commitment to the broader mission of group. 

What is the organizing model of the Harrison County Team?

While the team emerged in response to an outbreak of Palmer amaranth, which is a particularly wicked weed to control that sparked Larry Buss into action, the team demonstrated agility by expanding their focus to include other weeds and now plant diseases.  The Harrison County Pest Resistance Management Team has generally followed a community organizing model that includes these essential steps:

  1.  Identification of a leader or leadership team
  2. Identification of the issue or problem
  3. Formation of a team or committee of local people who share common interests
  4. Developing a common vision and strategy to address the problem
  5. Building an awareness of its efforts
  6. Invite and engage others in the process or actions they wish to pursue
  7. Implementing an action plan and evaluate results

After three years of experience, the Harrison County Pest Resistance Management Team provides a glimpse into how committed local leaders and growers can collaborate and work together to address weed, insects, and plant disease resistance issues in their county.   This model of group action may be appropriate to other counties in addressing the emerging issues of resistant weeds, insects, and diseases.  One should never underestimate the ability of committed local leaders in making a difference in solving local problems.  The level of passion, commitment and dedication to solving the pest resistance issues in Harrison County and building upon their accomplishments suggests this is an effective and appropriate response.   In subsequent columns I will be reporting on their continuing activities and how this group can serve as a catalyst for other counties that face the daunting challenges of pest resistance.