Jose de Sanctis Wins Farmer Problem Weed Competition

Weed science student stands in a NC State greenhouse

“Weed contests test your entire knowledge of what’s a weed and how to control it,” said Crop and Soil Sciences’ Ph.D. student Jose de Sanctis. “Of the five competition categories, the farmer problem is the only one you can’t study for.”

Collegiate weed competitions get real with several hands-on and true-to-life simulations. Recently, Jose put his knowledge and field experience to the test at the Southern Weed Science Society’s contest. He took home first place in one of the most difficult-to-prepare-for categories – the farmer problem.

Weed Contests Challenge Depth of Knowledge

Weed contests are student-team competitions held at regional and national weed science conferences. Teams of four compete in a series of five written and hands-on categories: a troubleshooting exam, weed identification, herbicide symptomology, backpack calibration and the wild card – farmer problem. 

“It’s so unpredictable,” Jose said. “You have just 15 minutes to interact with a farmer and diagnose the problem they present. It challenges your interpersonal and problem-solving skills in addition to your weed and herbicide knowledge.”

Volunteer ‘farmers’ present real-world situations to the student competitors who’ve been assigned a mock industry identity. Students visit with their farmer clients at small-block field plots reflecting the simulated problem and they attempt to troubleshoot the agronomic woes. 

“You have some symptoms to work with and sometimes the farmers have a product label which can be helpful, Jose said. “ But you’ve only got 15 minutes to figure it out. It really tests your logic funnels to figure out what problems are affecting a field.” 

The interactions are very realistic and occasionally stressful.

Simulating Situations

Charlie Cahoon, a Crop and Soil Sciences associate professor of weed science, volunteered in the farmer problem competition in previous years.

“I was an irate tobacco farmer,” Cahoon mused. “The students were supposed to be company representatives. The idea was that I had used their herbicide and my tobacco was injured. I was bound and determined that they were going to pay me for my tobacco.”

Farmer volunteers can manifest however they choose – sharing as much or as little information as they wish. Students have to navigate tricky interpersonal dynamics as the clock ticks and they search for clues and solutions.

De Sanctis Beats the Clock

At the 2022 Southern Weed Contest, Jose was dealt a tough hand.

“In my competition, I faced a very quiet farmer with a private consultant who frequently spoke over the farmer. They didn’t give me much information and I didn’t have a field plot to look at – just drone pictures of corn showing areas with a strong stand and then some with just a 30% stand.” 

Jose said he spent the bulk of his time trying in vain to pry out details. But at the 12-minute mark, a kernel of information came to light. 

“The consultant kept responding to all my questions that they had done everything right. But I finally learned that the farmer had used old seed in some areas. He was also worried about what he could replant following an atrazine spray.”

“In the remaining three minutes, I talked as fast as I could to cover germination rate testing, herbicide label review, and that his only option was to plant sorghum. I knew I had said the right things but wasn’t sure how well I said them.”

When the time is up, farmers quietly score students on several criteria. The bulk of the score is based on how well the student presents themself and their line of reasoning, only 30% hinges on students’ suggested solutions. 

“Given the rushed timing, I didn’t think I had a chance in this category. I was shocked to see my name on the winners’ board,” Jose said.

Also at the Southern contest, Jacob Forehand and Hunter Lee won second and third respectively in the undergraduate competition. Earlier in the year, NC State’s graduate team placed second at the Northeast Weed Contest in Ontario. 

NC State weed science students with trophies
Team advisor Charlie Cahoon (second from R) poses with weed content students (L to R) Brock Dean, Jose de Sanctis, Jacob Forehand and Hunter Lee at the Southern Weed Science Society weed contest in Memphis, TN.

Prepared For Variability

Because weed competition events are diverse, preparation is key. Cahoon says he and fellow team advisor Wes Everman take students to view weed plots at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory or other research stations to view and diagnose crops and weeds problems. They also lead periodic ‘weed walks’ as well as calibration practice during the summer after fieldwork is complete. 

Jose credits this training for his comfort on his feet. “Since we work with a lot of herbicides in our research fields, we get to see a lot of examples of injury and weed response. Plus, our advisors are Extension Specialists. Often they present us with actual problems they face and the answers they give. It’s excellent training.”

Jose de Sanctis sprays herbicide in a test plot

Originally from Brazil, Jose came to NC State to learn about other crops and systems after earning a master’s in weed science at the University of Nebraska. He is currently working under the direction of Cahoon and Everman on herbicide-resistant Italian ryegrass. He is also working with Dr. Travis Gannon’s lab to understand the mechanisms of herbicide resistance in Italian ryegrass. In the field, the group is evaluating the combination of cover crops and preemergence herbicides for control of the weed.

Jose enjoys the field of weed science for its never-ending problem-solving.

“I quickly learned that I didn’t enjoy entomology, but I love identifying different plants and understanding the herbicide options of weed science. It’s a continuous farmer-problem scenario.”

Can You See Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences?

If you are looking for an academic path that provides hands-on training and real-world impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and enjoy competitive adventures every day.  

Discover more about student degree pathways including deep dives into our soil science and turfgrass programs. Then sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with careers that solve global challenges is just part of how we are growing the future.

tractor mowing a field