Agronomist and weed scientist Stanley Culpepper handles planting chores earlier this spring at Ponder Farm in Tifton. Culpepper researches solutions for weed control for 50 crops, with his biggest challenge currently the destructive pigweed.
TIFTON, Ga. -- Stanley Culpepper is proud to be a “farm boy.” Growing up on a bicentennial farm in North Carolina, Culpepper knew from an early age that weeds were bad because they hurt his parents’ crops.
“I went out with my dad and we hand-weeded a bunch; I thought there must be a better way,” Culpepper said.
Decades later, Culpepper is finding better ways. As a weed scientist and Extension agronomist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Tifton, Culpepper conducts weed science programs around the state in cotton, small grains and commercial vegetable crops.
“We try to develop diversified and integrated programs that are sustainable over time because if you over rely on a single management approach, whether it’s herbicides, tillage or any other practice, weed resistance or weed shifts will occur,” Culpepper said. “Building these effective programs is as important as anything that we do because it ensures our ability to survive.”
One weed that occupies a bulk of Culpepper’s time is Palmer amaranth, or pigweed. In 2004, Culpepper and his crew confirmed the first Roundup resistant pigweed in the world in Macon County. Since then, the weed has become most prevalent in the production of cotton but also infests peanuts, corn and soybeans. In an ideal setting, Palmer amaranth can grow several inches a day and reach heights of more than 7 feet. It has an extensive rooting structure and can produce a high volume of seeds. Georgia cotton growers currently spend more than $103 million each year to manage the weed.
“If you don’t control it, you don’t grow cotton in the state. It’s currently the biggest pest management challenge in the state of Georgia,” Culpepper said. “Palmer amaranth has truly changed agriculture. A lot of people suggest this weed has been the most impactful pest since the boll weevil.”
In controlling Palmer amaranth, Culpepper recommends a sound herbicide program while integrating other strategies, like hand-weeding, tillage and/or using cover crops to suppress the weed’s emergence in conservation tillage systems.
Providing answers to weed questions is what motivates Culpepper. In the summer months, it’s not uncommon for Culpepper to field 35 to 40 calls every day. It’s a huge responsibility for the agronomist who works to have the latest weed control information for almost 50 commercial crops.
“There’s never a concern about ‘Am I needed?’ The concern is, ‘Holy cow, how am I going to get these guys the answers they need if I don’t get any time to do the work?’” Culpepper said.
During the offseason, much of his time is spent on the road consulting with other weed scientists and giving lectures.
In January, he slept in his own bed just six nights. During the first three months of this year, Culpepper delivered 79 presentations in eight states, including California and Texas.
He has spoken in 20 states during the last five years and has been invited to speak in Australia. In the fall, he plans to travel to Brazil to share his knowledge with farmers there.
Finding answers and providing solutions motivated Culpepper as a young child growing up on a farm. Many years later, that same motivation drives him to help fellow farmers.
“My goal is simple: Everybody has their agenda, mine is the sustainability of the family farm,” Culpepper said. “That’s what I enjoy. That’s why I do what I do. I feel like I can help our farm, as well as other families’ farms, in the position I’m in, as much as any other opportunity that I’ve had.”
Clint Thompson is public relations coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Tifton.