sealPurdue News

February 1998

Farming for failure teaches producers how to do it right

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If you think your farm fields look bad, sign up for a day at the Purdue University Crop Diagnostic Training and Research Center. Center specialists will show you just how bad it can get.

"You might call it reverse farm management," says Greg Willoughby, Cooperative Extension Service agronomist and director of the center. "We do everything wrong so farmers can see the problems and learn how to correct them."

Each growing season, groups of farmers and crop consultants sign up to spend a day at the Purdue Agronomy Farm viewing soybeans deficient in phosphorus, corn infested with European corn borer, crops burned by herbicides, and fields full of foxtail. Since it opened in 1986, the center has trained thousands of people.

By the time they left, participants could look over a yellowed corn leaf and tell you if it lacked phosphorus, was burned by pesticide or suffered an infection.

"I'm 60 years old and I've worked 35 years in the field, but I've never attended a diagnostic training day where I didn't learn something," says Lance Murrell, research agronomist for Erny's Fertilizer Sales in Walton, Ind. "Besides, every year you have to review to get back up to speed, and I think the diagnostic center is the best place to get that done."

Those who participate come up to speed on such topics as economic insect threshold levels, or how many insects it takes before a farmer loses money. Often it costs less in the long run to let a crop suffer through a small infestation than to spray.

"And if they learn when not to spray, there's that much less pesticide in the environment," Willoughby says. "We're trying to provide hands-on training to individuals in industry and to farmers so they can make better management and consulting decisions. We want to make Indiana agriculture more productive and environmentally sound."

Over the next couple of years the curriculum will expand to include more advanced diagnostic topics and techniques. Willoughby also will enlist the aid of area farmers, so that center visitors can do case studies of actual farm fields. Center researchers also will start to offer training sessions on such things as forages, septic system placement and erosion.

Center instructors include Extension, research and teaching staff from Purdue's Departments of Agronomy, Botany and Plant Pathology, and Entomology, as well as leaders from the agricultural community.

The 20-acre, outdoor classroom contains 40 to 50 plots, each a living example of misfortune or mismanagement. Some are net-covered, to keep in the corn borers or army worms and ensure maximum crop destruction. The soils of other plots are starved for years to be certain of sickly crops. Others are weed-infested.

"We actually have a device designed to sow weed seeds in those plots," Willoughby says.

If farmers or agribusiness persons don't want to drive to West Lafayette, they can attend sessions at one of two similar, smaller-scale diagnostic training centers.

At the Northeast-Purdue Agricultural Center (NEPAC) on the west side of Fort Wayne, educators showcase the problems of no-till fields, which are common in northeastern Indiana, says NEPAC superintendent Phil Walker.

"I think the main draw for having it here is that it's local," Walker says. "They don't have to drive to campus."

Jerry Nelson, an Extension educator from Knox County, and Bob Yoder, Extension educator from Daviess County, created their own diagnostic training center at the Southwestern Purdue Agricultural Center (SWPAC) at Vincennes. As at NEPAC, educators offer information that fits the local situation.

"Southwestern Indiana has sandy soil, and we can plant corn as early as March 24," Nelson says. "And here we use irrigation because of the sandy soil and melon crops. We also have different soybean problems -- more nematodes and Sudden Death Syndrome."

To sign up for training at the Purdue University Crop Diagnostic Training and Research Center, contact the Purdue University Cooperative Extension office in your county. Training runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Days open to private individuals include June 11 and 12, July 21 and 23, and Sept. 10. The cost is yet to be determined.

To attend the 1998 NEPAC diagnostic training day in June, contact Steve Siegelin, Extension educator in Adams County, at (219) 724-3000. The next SWPAC training day will be held in 1999.

Sources: Greg Willoughby, (765) 494-8786; e-mail,
Phil Walker, (219) 244-7290; e-mail,
Jerry Nelson, (812) 886-9661; e-mail,
Writer: Rebecca J. Goetz, (765) 494-0461; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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