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Tom Peters, NDSU assistant professor and extension agronomist, examines a Palmer amaranth plant near Holdrege, Neb., on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. For reference, Peters stands six-foot-three-inches and the Palmer amaranth plant towered over him. Nick Nelson/Agweek

'Why not us?': NDSU eyes pesticide testing lab

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Pesticides are an important and controversial part of U.S. agriculture. Now, a North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota extension official is spearheading an effort to establish a pesticide application testing laboratory on the NDSU campus in Fargo, N.D.

"Why not us?" said Tom Peters, NDSU and U of M extension sugar beet specialist, pointing to the growing need for pesticide application testing and the very small number of labs that offer it.

The proposed NDSU lab would cost $2 million to $5 million and potentially could open in three to five years, he estimated.

Peters talked with Agweek during a mid-August trip to North Platte, Neb., where the University of Nebraska-Lincoln operates its Pesticide Application Technology Laboratory. Three dozen people, most of them North Dakota extension officials, went on the trip, which included a tour of the lab, as well as visits to Nebraska fields infested with Palmer amaranth, a terrible weed working its way north. Peters organized the trip, which was funded by a grant from the North Dakota Soybean Council.

The Nebraska lab is the only one of its kind operated by a U.S. academic institution. There are three comparable facilities: one is run by a private company in Wisconsin and another by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Texas, with the third in Australia.

Built in 2012 and expanding on four decades on pesticide application research at the University of Nebraska's North Platte Research Station, the lab is equipped with a state-of-the-art greenhouse and wind tunnels. It collects droplet-size measurements and conducts simulated-drift studies, supplementing what the research station learns through field trials.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with registering new pesticides, is increasingly concerned that pesticide testing doesn't hurt the environment. So, EPA wants at least some of that testing done indoors, in controlled conditions, Peters said.

"I believe that safe application of pesticides is our responsibility," he said.

The need for safe application of pesticides is heightened by the greater resistance to chemicals that many weeds are developing, as well as the growing threat from Palmer amaranth, he said.

Complementary

North Platte, a farm and railroad town of about 25,000, is in southwest Nebraska, just south of the Nebraska Sandhills. Though North Platte itself is not prominent, the lab has "has national, if not international, prominence," he said.

Establishing a similar facility in Fargo would "help make NDSU unique," Peters said. "It would be a way to stand out," with "ancillary benefits" including attracting faculty and graduate students and helping NDSU departments such as ag engineering, he said.

Because there's so much potential for expanded pesticide testing, the North Platte lab is looking to collaborate with others, said Greg Kruger, University of Nebraska weed scientist application technology specialist and director of the North Platte lab.

The proposed Fargo lab would complement, but not duplicate, what's being done now in North Platte, Peters said.

"We can't do it the same way Nebraska does. We need to think about how we can do this in a complementary fashion," Peters said. "That's what we have in mind."

Peters said NDSU officials have expressed strong support for the project.

He described himself as an "idea guy" and "salesman" and said he has no intention of running it himself.

Though there's no timetable, Peters is optimistic that "some clarity" will develop on the proposed lab in three to five years.

"Any time you have an idea, you have to sell people and that takes time. We're patient on this. We're in it for the long term, not the short term," he said.

Most of the estimated $2 million to $5 million price tag probably would come from state funding, though the private sector might be involved, too. The final cost would depend in part on whether a new building is constructed or an existing one is converted, Peters said.

"It takes courage to do these kinds of projects. But I'll say it again: Why not us?" he said.

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