Crossing the Boundaries of Herbicide Resistance with Drs. Ian Burke and Nick Bergmann

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.


My guests today are Dr. Ian Burke and Dr. Nick Bergmann. Ian is the RJ Cook Endowed Chair of Wheat Research and a professor in weed science at Washington State University. Ian started working in weed science in 1999 and joined the faculty at WSU in 2006. His research program is focused on basic aspects of weed biology and ecology, with the goal of integrating such information into practical and economical methods of managing weeds in the environment.

Hello, Ian.

Dr. Ian Burke: Hello, Drew.

Drew Lyon: And Nick is a postdoctoral researcher at both Washington State University and the University of Idaho. Nick earned a Ph.D. in earth sciences from Montana State University and an M.A. in geography from Portland State University. As a human geographer with specializations in political ecology and historical geography, Nick’s scholarship focuses largely on analysis of resource use in the US West.

Currently, Nick is working with Dr. Ian Burke and Dr. Chloe Wardropper are in projects focused on finding solutions to the growing problem of weed resistance. Hello, Nick.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having us.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. So, let’s talk herbicide resistance and specifically let’s talk about why herbicide resistance is a transboundary resource problem.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: Sure. I guess I can hop in here. Where I like to start with, this is actually a picture that Ian loves to show at presentations and if I can paint the picture a little bit and maybe let Ian jump in here too. I think it’s somewhere down in the Walla Walla area, there’s a there’s a field with a bunch of stubble and then there’s a green basically diagonal running through it, and I believe it’s kochia that is in that field. And I think that’s a nice place to start with thinking about how herbicide resistance is a transboundary problem, as in it’s crossing property boundaries and involves multiple resource users, and often multiple types of property regimes–is the term we would use in my field at least to talk about that.

So, Ian, I don’t know if you want to jump in and talk about that a little bit and then I can come back around to the resource part specifically.

Dr. Ian Burke: Sure. You see this scene repeated over and over again with weeds like Russian thistle and it’s usually the most visible form of herbicide resistance in the driest areas of the Pacific Northwest, where we practice wheat fallow–and there’s this clearly visible trail of survivors in these fallow fields where the fallow was treated with just a single herbicide, usually Roundup or glyphosate. And we not only see it here in the PNW, but all across the western United States–anywhere where there’s a pre-plant burndown treatment of some sort where there’s been herbicide resistant seed dropped in a trail, from tumbleweeds. That’s the most visible kind of transboundary movement.

I think, there’s growing awareness that, unseen herbicide resistance moves through the air in pollen. It moves in our vehicle traffic. It moves in our combines. It moves on our planters. It moves on any sort of tillage equipment. And those are much more difficult to visualize. You only really sense it as a human after a few years, maybe, that something’s changed, and you don’t necessarily know why or you can’t put your finger on it. But we move these plants around or they get moved around in a way that makes it all of our problem.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: So, mobility and this transboundary effect is there, but why should we think about herbicide resistance as a resource or resource problem? And without getting into the weeds too far, you know, herbicide resistance seems like it’s a nuisance, right? It’s not something that we want. So, why think about it as a resource, and you have to kind of break it into smaller components and it’s the susceptibility of a weed population to a herbicide. You’re trying to preserve that susceptibility. And so that has been thought about or conceptualized as the resource component of herbicide resistance. And then something Ian and I and Chloe have contributed is that you can’t disconnect that susceptible weed population from the efficacy of the herbicide itself, so we also need to think about that herbicide as the resource as well. So, it’s kind of joined between that weed population and the effectiveness of the herbicide.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, how has weed science gone about researching the management of herbicide resistance and the solutions to it?

Dr. Ian Burke: And I’ll probably start here, Nick, and then maybe you come back with a critique of that.

Our approach, you know, historically, Drew and I, you and I have done a lot of work to, in the simplest form, identify a management input—it could be herbicide information that our farmers consume what works best to kill, which weed. That’s the sort of simplest form of how we’ve done this historically.

We might make that a little bit more complicated. Maybe we’ll design systems for a rotation or we’ll study rotations. Drew, you in particular have done a lot of rotational experiments over the years. So, maybe we’ve incorporated more advanced systems or maybe we’ve attempted to incorporate weed biology where we use a decision support tool that’s based maybe on when weeds would germinate. Those are much more complicated.

We don’t have one currently deployed here in the Pacific Northwest, but we found as we increase the complexity of those sort of decision support tools or the information associated with rotation, it gets harder to implement. From my perspective, as I’ve interacted with farmers over the years, it just gets too complex.

But we know that farmers have solutions. And so, we’ve been thinking a lot about how do we flip this in a way that the farmer is much more involved in the solution from the beginning as part of the conversation?

Dr. Nick Bergmann: Yeah. And I would just hop up maybe, just to back it up a little bit and put it in the context of weed science, especially in North America. I’m going to exclude Australia and that Australian conversation right now, just to be concise. But I would say–and correct me if I’m wrong, Drew–about 15 years ago, and I think this was largely driven by glyphosate resistance and the increase in glyphosate resistance in the US, but there was this idea in weed science that things needed to be done a little bit differently. And so, one of the approaches to that was trying to bring social scientists on board to tackle this growing problem of herbicide resistance. And there was a couple of workshops and some reports and some really great work that was done that was really internal to weed science. It was kind of expanding the discipline to bring in some social science perspectives.

And one of the most powerful strains to come out of that is this idea of basically community-based herbicide resistance management. So, yeah, I don’t know if, Ian or Drew, if you want to add anything to that?

Dr. Ian Burke: Yeah, no, that’s a good sort of reminder of how we have progressed in our thinking from that sort of initial–inevitably, these are humans making decisions about how to manage weeds and they can be frustratingly complicated and stubborn and often repetitive in their practice. And we know that those are practices that typically lead to the evolution of herbicide resistance. And so, we need to understand why we’re doing those things from a human perspective as much as we need to understand the tools that we’re using to control the weeds themselves.

Drew Lyon: And I know, you know, being in Extension now for 30 some years that, you know, we’ve been talking how do you manage herbicide resistance for a very long time and really haven’t seen the changes we wanted. And that’s where kind of bringing in the social scientists, hoping that we can better understand how this message which we’ve put out, why it hasn’t been adopted and what might help drive people to make the decision to make better choices on how to preserve. So, I think that’s really the—weed scientists have been frustrated because we’ve kind of known how you do it, but it just hasn’t been adopted by a lot of people. So, why is that? And that’s where bringing in social scientists have come in lately.

And, you know, part of that is this social context–so, community-based-type herbicide resistance management. So, maybe you guys can describe what this community-based herbicide resistance management is and how it’s different from how we’ve done things previously?

Dr. Nick Bergmann: You want me to start on this one in, Ian? 

I guess just conceptually, there’s basically what’s known as a commons framework, which is that in the history of resource use, lots of local communities have been able to come together and be able to basically manage resource issues and resource problems that are shared–transboundary resource issues.

And some of the classic examples of this would be a fishery or a shared pasture or shared forest resource. And so, you know, in this 15 years ago context, I think a lot of interest was piqued in the weed science community [about] if this phenomenon could happen with herbicide resistance. And so, it was conceptualized as basically being a commons-type resource.

And so, that’s kind of the larger context within which we’ve kind of situated our work in our project. I think we’ve taken a slightly different angle or different approach–instead of focusing so much on the management aspect, we focused a little bit more on directly community-engaged research, I would say, and there’s a couple different frameworks we’re working on with that.

And Ian alluded to this earlier, but really sitting down with farmers and researchers in the room and trying to get our different ways of knowing together to think of some new solutions together to be able to pursue. But the key here is we’re doing research first. We’re researchers, and hopefully that is intimately connected to the management as well, but it’s a little bit different way, I think, of approaching that community-based herbicide resistance framework than what has been done previously.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Ian, can you give us an example of something you’re working on currently?

Dr. Ian Burke: I think my favorite thus far has been work that Nick and I have been conducting in collaboration with Garett Heineck with the USDA-ARS. We’ve been working with farmers in Douglas County and it took a lot of meetings to kind of square up with the reality of farming in the inland Pacific Northwest—from all of our perspectives—to make sure we had all the people that we needed to have in the room, in the room.

And, it was really pretty gratifying at the end to land on something that the farmers wanted to try out. So, they got to a place where, you know, we know that in this particular group, they said, “You know, we know diversification is really important for us for a lot of different reasons. We also know that will have a real impact on how we manage weeds.

And so how do we diversify our systems?”

And so, Garett and Nick and I could supply them with ideas. But in the end, they wound up doing all the work in the field and we just devised ways to study what they did to understand how or how not it was going to be a potential[ly] effective tool for us to engage in further.

I think, to get the farmers to that point, it took discussions with NRCS. It took discussions with the conservation district. It took discussions with, for example, Highline Seed to understand how maybe they might be able to market something new. And it was that those repeated conversations that generated a lot of inertia.

Now, admittedly, this group of farmers are pretty well connected amongst themselves anyway, but I think that, by-and-large, it’s actually not necessarily different. It’s definitely different in that we have a lot of new tools that we as scientists can use to help farmers. So, we have, you know, autonomous weather stations we can deploy. We have all manner of sensors that can detect soil moisture. We have cameras that we can put in these fields to monitor crop growth and development. They’re all, you know, internet enabled. And so, I don’t have to be in Douglas County every day to monitor what’s going on–I can actually do that from Pullman, Washington, pretty effectively. And with a few phone calls, we’ve kind of squared up on what’s happening.

That’s a, in my experience, a very new and novel way to conduct research–in collaboration with an array of people who have very little, if any, research background–to everyone’s betterment. That’s a long-winded answer, I guess, but, you know, as I’ve learned about this process through doing the process, it’s clearly a way to conduct research in agriculture that we need to engage in a much broader basis.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And for those listeners who may not be familiar with Douglas County, it’s not the easiest place in the world to farm. It’s fairly dry, has some elevation, short growing season. So, yeah, a bit of a challenging environment to come up with diversity and different approaches so the fact that you’re able to do that in that area bodes well for other parts of the state and region.

Dr. Ian Burke: I think a lot of the success is really predicated on the interest in having success among those who are participating. I mean, if people are vested in, figuring this out, they see an opportunity. They see benefit to their farm. They see a benefit to their soil. They see a benefit to the rotation. That tends to be a much better motivator than any Extension presentation I’ve ever given.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: And I might just add to it, too–from my perspective as a social scientist, one of the, I guess, the perspective that weed scientists have been using to influence, maybe, behavior as it relates to herbicide resistance has been really focused on mitigation. So, what are the practices that you can put in place to kind of mitigate the spread of resistance? And from my experience doing a couple of these projects, farmers are really, really excited to think about adaptation. And so, this dovetails pretty nicely with, “Okay, how do we–there’s so many constraints out there, right, kind of limiting what you can do–maybe it’s your rotational options. So, how can we all work together to maybe push those constraints a little bit to enable communities and farmers to adapt to the realities of herbicide resistance, while at the same time potentially doing some good mitigation work, too. But framing it a little less around mitigation and a little bit more around adaptation, I think maybe will have some value.

Drew Lyon: Okay. That’s an interesting perspective, which is why we like having social scientists work with us. So, I think I’ve heard the term transdisciplinary weed research. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what that framework is and how your research both fit into this framework and other conceptualizations.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: This is one of the really cool things that’s been part of my postdoc is that this framework that we’ve talked about, this alternative community-based management framework didn’t necessarily come from what had been written in weed science or weed research. But as I’ve had more time to read the wider literature within weed science, I’ve seen that there’s elements of this in different places, and this is one example.

So, this framework is from a 2016 paper that I believe was published in a European weed science journal basically coming up with a step or a process of how to do transdisciplinary research. And I’m like, “Wow, this is basically what we’re doing.” I just came across this paper in the last year or so and our case study fits fairly well, and I’m thinking, “What can our research give to this framework.”

And so, one of the limitations of the framework is I don’t think it actually integrates the community-based dynamic with farmers and knowledge co-production quite as well. And so, yeah, just this is one of these things we just came across and we’re thinking about, “Well, kind of more on the back end–how can we use our research to actually help kind of push this framework that is relevant and already exists in weed science?

I’m not sure if you want to jump on that, Ian.

Dr. Ian Burke: We’re pressed by granting agencies to produce proposals that are transdisciplinary in some way. And I think that personally from my perspective, it’s been really gratifying to learn about, you know–as a physical scientist, I think about social science as this mono block–I used to anyway–as this mono block of human specialists.

And it’s every bit as complex a discipline as even my own discipline, weed science. And that’s been, I think, the biggest hurdle is understanding from my perspective, how to engage with them meaningfully in science. And for transdisciplinary science to work, we’ve got to as physical scientists understand how to engage social scientists in a way that they’re excited and interested in our work as well.

And, I think, our example now that we’ve been working on here for the last couple of years is a really good example of how that can happen.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. I think some really exciting things could come of this. I’m already starting to see some exciting things coming from it. So, where do you see additional opportunities to use this idea of community-engaged research to address the problem of herbicide resistance? And how do you think these intersect with the Pacific Northwest Herbicide Resistance Initiative?

Dr. Ian Burke: I think there’s a lot of different opportunities. I think the limit now is really our capacity and interest among grower groups. And, you know, unfortunately, is only one of Nick. I think that what we’re realizing now is that there’s opportunities in things like harvest weed control. There’s opportunities in working with farmers in their rotations to understand how weeds interact at a biological level.

There’s really just a lot of opportunity and in a lot of ways this is the best part: they’re often farmer driven. And so, you know, what we’ve learned is that finding engaged groups who have ideas that they’re interested in sharing or exploring are often what instigates the conversation. And then we’ve just got to get the right researchers in the room to figure out how to address their questions in a meaningful way that that we can then share more broadly among the grower community and in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: Yeah. I think I would just add that, you know, the set of questions or the set of problems that transdisciplinary research can address is itself limited, but hopefully it’s addressing a different set than would be under normal circumstances, right? So, it’s expanding scientific capabilities beyond maybe what a standard baseline set of important questions would be.

And what’s so special about the Herbicide Resistance Initiative is that it provides a type of funding source to be able to engage with–it’s basically transdisciplinary in its conception and in its ideas and so it provides a really nice pot of funding to be able to tackle some of these dynamics.

And transdisciplinary work is really hard. It takes a lot of time and so you often run into a lot of funding challenges with that type of work. And so, I think the reality is it’s a special opportunity to be able to do some of this work and research.

Drew Lyon: I think what I find exciting about it is how it brings the different disciplines together to tackle issues of common concern. You know, there’s a lot of interest in soil health, for example–well, how can weed management fit into the whole soil health picture? And then, you know, everybody’s interested in what new variety is out there and how do you bring the plant breeders into and all that comes into play, which is really–it kind of breaks down the silos a bit as we can do this.

And I see the Pacific Northwest Herbicide Resistance Initiative really being a catalyst for tearing down some of those silos and getting people to work together to come up with–and then growers are the ultimate integrators, right? They have to integrate all this information. So, I think that’s really exciting about this kind of work. So, keep it up.

Where can people go to learn a little bit about what you two are up to? Is there a website they can go to or will there be a website soon?

Dr. Ian Burke: We’re working on it. There is a website at currently exists that describes the team and a few of our outputs. We should be adding content routinely. And there’s, you know, there’s a few other–the website, we also put material there as well. Certainly this podcast will land there. So, yeah, there’s places to go look [and] more to come.

Drew Lyon: All right. Excellent. Well, thank you both for being my guests today on the WSU Wheat Beat podcast.

Dr. Nick Bergmann: Thanks for having us, Drew.


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter [X] @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.