By University of Guelph
It’s not exactly a varsity sport, but training and competing in the annual “weed Olympics” can be equally gruelling.
The Northeastern Collegiate Weed Science Contest, an annual event that pits the finest plant science students against one another in tough but friendly competition, is set to return on July 27 after a two-year hiatus (due to the pandemic).
A team of about 20 students from the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College will face off against some of the biggest schools in the U.S., including Cornell, Pennsylvania State, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State.
Though the contest might be little-known to those outside of agricultural science, the Weed Science Contest has been held almost every year for the last 40 years. And yes, both the event and its name still elicit chuckles from outsiders.
“It sounds so nerdy when you explain to your friends. ‘Yeah, I’m going to this competition to compete in weed identification and sprayer calibration events,’” said Marinda Gras, a 2022 University of Guelph weed team member. “But it’s actually a lot of fun and a great way to practise what we’ve been learning.”
Gras, a first-year master of plant agriculture student, is competing in the event for the second time after attending as a third-year crop science undergrad. She said it takes weeks of training to prepare for the events, which also includes in-field problem-solving and herbicide identification.
Help students apply their skills in weed science
The latter event presents competitors with a small crop plot that has been treated with a mystery herbicide; students must determine which has been used based on the symptoms of the plants.
“It’s very challenging — a lot more than you might think. To look at a field plot and try to figure out what weeds are missing, what herbicide would have been used – it’s not easy,” Gras said.
The mission of the Weed Science Contest is to help students broaden their applied skills in weed science and apply their knowledge, said Clarence Swanton, a now-retired professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture who coached the university’s weed team to many victories over more than 30 years before colleague François Tardif took over just before the pandemic.
“These students are gaining invaluable experience in on-farm agronomy, taking what they’ve learned in the classroom and literally bringing it to the field,” said Swanton, who noted that University of Guelph teams consistently place in the top three in several categories.
The event is also a great networking event, with top industry experts serving as judges. After a full day of competition, students are awarded their prizes at an evening banquet that also offers the opportunity to mingle with others in the field.
Demand for weed science expertise growing
Tardif said the demand for expertise in weed science is growing, given the challenges of climate change and invasive species.
“Training new experts in weed science who have real-life experience to face these challenges is invaluable,” he said.
The University of Guelph is once again the only Canadian entrant in the competition and serves as co-host this year, along with Syngenta Canada, which will hold the event at its Honeywood Research Facility in Plattsville, Ont.
This is also the first time in close to 20 years the contest is being held in Canada. Typically, the University of Guelph team travels to the U.S., Swanton said.
“What I can tell you is that, when you cross the border and explain to the guards where you’re headed, it’s a good idea not to tell them that you’re headed to the ‘weed Olympics,’” he laughed.