University of Illinois Extension weed specialist Aaron Hager

University of Illinois Extension weed specialist Aaron Hager demonstrates the difference between Palmer amaranth and waterhemp at a field day.

Aaron Hager never told his father, a long-time farmer in southwestern Illinois, that he actually buys weed seeds to plant.

“And they are expensive,” Hager said.

Weeds — the big, the bad and the ugly — have been the focus of Hager’s work at the University of Illinois for 28 years. This includes planting them on test plots at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign and at neighboring Savoy to learn more about their habits and control.

Hager says one of the best parts of his job is learning something new every day and telling farmers what he has learned so they can decide how best to use that knowledge on their farms.

“I get to learn, and share what I’ve learned, to help taxpayers,” said the Illinois Extension specialist, researcher and crop science professor.

Hager thought he would grow up to be a farmer.

“When I was a kid growing up on a farm, my vision for my career wasn’t this,” he said of being a weed scientist. He was going to stay on the family farm in Beardstown in Cass County, Ill.

“Two individuals didn’t share my vision,” he said. “Mom and Dad.”

Still, expecting to farm, he wanted to choose a university with a good agricultural program. He preferred one with a good Division 2 football program to pursue his other passion.

The best ag programs he found were at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He got accepted at both, but chose Southern because he would have a better chance to be a walk-on football player there.

“Turns out I didn’t,” he said.

He stuck with the books and graduated with a Bachelor of Plant and Soil Science degree in 1991. When it came time to choose a master’s program, the University of Illinois sent a two paragraph acceptance letter and Michigan State sent three pages. He chose Michigan for that reason and completed his master’s degree there in 1993.

Full circle back to Illinois, he earned his Ph.D. in agronomy at the University of Illinois in 2001 when he was already working here.

Even after three decades of work, Hager still comes across some puzzling situations. In screening for waterhemp recently, he found herbicide-resistant weeds in a field where that herbicide had never been.

“There is no record of it ever being used in that field,” he said. That means farmers can have weeds resistant to herbicides they have never been exposed to, he said, calling it “evolutionary.”

When he first started working in Illinois almost 30 years ago, Hager said there were about two people who knew what waterhemp looked like and that it wasn’t just red-leafed pigweed. Over the past 25 years, it has become one of the “driver species” in Illinois.

He said he has been lucky to work with the “legends” in Extension and crop science research at the University of Illinois.

During his career, social media became part of the job in telling the story of weeds and reaching a broader audience.

By coincidence, Hager started a Twitter account in 2017 — the first year dicamba drift damage made headlines.

“I wished I hadn’t,” he said. About 50% of the people liked what he said about dicamba, “and 50% want to string me up.”

Managing social media takes take a thicker veneer, he said.

While this is the first year he has used Zoom for virtual meetings as part of social distancing, he recalls taking other steps into communication over time. Because he was so focused on agriculture, he opted not to take other classes, including typing. He never used a computer before earning his bachelor’s degree in 1991 and was still a newbie when he earned his master’s degree two years later. It only became a part of his work when he joined the University of Illinois staff.

For Hager, agriculture is more of an in-person industry, where you stop and talk to a neighbor or visit at the fertilizer plant or elevator.

“You learn a lot of things that way,” he said.

He still prefers in-person communication to social media, where thoughts are often just snippets without context and it is more difficult to have an interactive conversation.

He treasures the feedback from farmers he has helped to solve weed challenges or make cropping decisions. Sometimes after meeting someone and helping them with a problem, they will send him a little note. He keeps them all.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.