You might say Trevor James has been stuck in the weeds for almost half a century.

But that would not be a true reflection of the progress made in the costly ongoing war against weeds for Kiwi farmers and growers, with this long-serving AgResearch scientist at the forefront.

“It gives me energy knowing that somebody’s asked a question, and I’ve been able to answer it. For me, that’s very fulfilling - to be able to help people,” James says.

“That has basically been the guiding principle for my whole career: what do people need to know to be better farmers, better growers? Let’s see what we can do to help them.”

That willingness to share his extensive weeds knowledge is part of the reason that James was recently awarded the prestigious New Zealand Plant Protection Medal. It was instituted by the NZ Plant Protection Society to honour “those who have made exceptional contributions to plant protection in the widest sense”.

“The medal is awarded based on outstanding services to plant protection, whether through research, education, implementation or leadership. Trevor James fits those criteria in every sense of the word,” society president Hayley Ridgway said in presenting the medal.

AgResearch senior scientist Trevor James receives the New Zealand Plant Protection Medal from NZ Plant Protection Society president Hayley Ridgway

A book James has co-authored, An Illustrated Guide to Common Weeds of New Zealand, had become “a legacy for the next generation in its knowledge”, Ridgway says.

Around 2002, when yellow bristle grass – a weed that spreads rapidly through pasture – emerged, James and colleagues worked on it for a long time to get some solutions.

“In the end, we published the Yellow Bristle Grass Ute Guide, which people are still asking me for copies of. It’s onto its fourth edition now, as we have got more knowledge.”

Similar “pocket guides” had been produced for grass and broadleaf weeds, to help guide farmers, growers, landowners and local authorities on how best to manage them. He’s lost count of how many fieldays and industry group gatherings he’s spoken at over the years.

Raised on a sheep and cattle farm in the Coromandel, James went off to university to do a science degree and soon after gave it up for a job loading railway wagons after his studies weren’t going well. It took a year of this work to realise that what he really wanted was a career in farming or science.

So, in 1974 James looked to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ (MAF) research division at Ruakura in Waikato, where two jobs were going: sorting offal in the abattoir; or working in the field with the weeds team.

“It was a no-brainer. I’d skinned sheep and worked with offal and gutted sheep before, and I did not want more of that. So, I started with the weeds team. And I fell in love with it, basically. We worked with the problems that farmers brought forward – Nodding thistle, ragwort, gorse. At that stage, ag-chemicals were a new-ish thing and not widely used or understood.”

As he continued studying and learning his craft over the years that followed, “we were coming into a period where chemical residues were a concern for people”. James got his Master’s degree with a focus on chemical residues, and later his PhD.

I called a spade a spade, and that was always highly respected by farmers

AgResearch senior scientist Trevor James

Asked if being raised on a farm provided a “leg-up” in engaging with farmers on weeds, James describes it as more like a “pole vault”.

“Because I could understand them; I could talk their language. I called a spade a spade, and that was always highly respected by farmers.”

More recently, James has been leading a government-funded programme tackling the large and looming issue of weed resistance to herbicide in New Zealand. The programme has won plaudits for its progress and outreach.

James and a colleague discovered a first case of resistance in New Zealand in 1979, and initially it was just anecdotes and “whispers”.

“Nobody really wanted to talk about it. And when we started this (government programme) it was the same thing. When we set out, we didn’t think there was that much resistance out there – we thought maybe 5 per cent of farms are impacted by some kind of resistance. By the time we had finished the programme, we learned through our surveys that it was actually 44 per cent of farms impacted by it. They were just dealing with it in their own quiet way. But now farmers are talking about it, they are forming groups, coming up with their own solutions. That’s something I have always encouraged farmers to do because a few researchers can’t solve all the problems. We just need to point them in the right direction and give them the information.”

Looking ahead, James sees change coming in how weeds are managed by farmers and growers – “it could be market access, it could be people not wanting chemicals, or it could be the technology in other forms becoming competitive in terms of costs”.

“We’ve got to feed a lot of people and that might drive change faster than anything. And we know climate change is happening, but we really can’t predict what the impact is going to be.”

Retirement is not on the cards yet as the 50-year career milestone looms.

“I keep on findings things I want to do. And people, from the famers and growers up, are such wonderful people to work with.”

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