SDSU weed specialist retiring, turning attention to ‘heavy iron’

Paul O. Johnson has fielded a lot of questions about problem weeds in his career at South Dakota State University. The Extension weed science coordinator is retiring from the position that resulted from battles with weeds on his family’s farm at Hammer, South Dakota. “I could see how the weed control could really rob yields if you didn’t take care of it and also make farming a lot tougher, and so, it was kind of a natural interest,” said Johnson, during an interview. “And I did get a kick out of working with the public and trying to help out farmers to better be able to take care of their situations. That’s how it really all got started.”

Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy and general agriculture from South Dakota State University in 1979 and obtained his master’s degree in agronomy from SDSU in 1983. But before ever setting foot on campus, it was Johnson’s father who urged him to get in touch with the person who would become his first role model. “When I started at South Dakota State University, he said ‘you need to get to know [Distinguished Professor of Plant Science Emeritus] Leon Wrage because he’s really a good guy and he could teach you a lot.’” As Johnson recalls, that student/instructor relationship, including planting and tending test plots for the well-known weed specialist, opened doors. “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing [Wrage] and learning a heck of a lot from him and also taking over for him a few years after he retired.”

Johnson accepted a position with SDSU Extension as the integrated pest management coordinator in 1984. He briefly stepped away from Extension to work as the agronomy coordinator at AgFirst Farmer’s Cooperative in Brookings, South Dakota, in 1996.  Throughout his career, Johnson has dispensed advice on ridding fields of cocklebur, velvetleaf, and other unwelcome plant life, but over time has developed a special dislike for what is now his nemesis weed. “When I first started, waterhemp was just located in the southeast corner of [South Dakota],” he said. “All of sudden over about a five-year period, it seemed like that weed adapted and moved north and west in the state. So now, basically, the eastern half of the state has waterhemp, and overall, probably is the most challenging for our farmers.”

Among personal challenges in Johnson’s career, his toughest has been the controversy during the last few years surrounding the use of dicamba on soybeans. “It’s good technology, but it’s technology that can be abused,” said Johnson, referring to problems with herbicide drift resulting in damage to non-dicamba-tolerant crops. “And having farmers pitted against farmers over some of it really wasn’t a lot of fun, because it isn’t my job to say which way a person should go or what they should do. I always felt my job was to give them the information and let them decide how they wanted to move forward. This one was tough to deal with.”

On the other hand, Johnson has an immediate answer for what has been the most significant weed control advancement in his career. “Roundup Ready,” he replied. “We took those perennials like milkweed, thistles, quackgrass, all of those perennials that were a real headache and required a lot of tillage to take care of, now are not even considered a problem.”

In addition to continuing in his current role while a replacement is found, Johnson plans to devote more time to his hobby of antique farm machinery. “In my [Zoom] background is a 30-60 Hart Parr, called ‘Old Reliable’. That was the tractor that coined the term ‘tractor’. Before this one, they were called ‘traction engines’,” he explained, about the image of a nearly 20,000-pound piece of antique equipment pictured on his video call application. “I’m a history person, so any business related to farms and farm history is kind of my kick,” added Johnson. “I’ve got a lot of projects to do and I’m not going to be bored.”