“When is spray school? I think my card expires next year.” It’s a question and comment I get several times each fall.

Of course the official name is not really spray school, but rather Private Pesticide Applicator Certification Training, or PAT as it’s often called. PAT is the equivalent of driver’s education for crop producers who apply pesticides to field crops. The big difference is that both the training and test are completed on the same day.

According to Chapter ATCP 29, subchapter VI of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, no individual may use or direct the use of a restricted-use pesticide as an agricultural producer unless that person is certified. Further, the code designates UW-Extension to provide the training and administer the test.

teacher_cartoon_blackboardI’m sure the lawmakers of this great nation had no idea, and probably still don’t, of the unique cultural dynamic they created with this law. John Phipps, the farmer-humorist from Illinois, once wrote a column for Farm Journal magazine about his experiences with Illinois PAT entitled “No Wonder Guys are Going Organic.”

Before proceeding further, I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. This is important and beneficial training. Topics from regulations to personal safety to environmental protection are covered. Farmers don’t get the same free pass as a homeowner when it comes to purchasing and applying certain pesticides. No, they get a 300-page training manual.

The number of county PAT sessions offered per year has ranged from one to seven. I’ve never counted how many times I’ve taught a session in the past 23 winters, but I’d guess in the vicinity of 70. Farmers have to recertify every five years. Together, it’s made for a unique history and relationship.

The PAT program consists of ten separate slide presentations. In the old days, multiple trays of 35mm slides were transported to the location of the day’s training, which included town halls, churches, and restaurants. Along with each slide set was a cassette that contained the scripted audio and magic little codes that automatically forwarded the slide projector—or usually did. Equipment malfunctions were only exceeded by those experienced with a bale knotter.

Several years ago the entire program was modernized and converted to a DVD. Old 35mm slides and cassettes were replaced with digital slides and audio files. This was largely a positive improvement except we lost the clicking sound of the old slide projector, a key mechanism that kept 20 percent of the crowd awake.

The typical PAT attendee is out in the barn early on training day to complete chores and allow for the drive time needed to make a 9:45 a.m. program start. If a livestock waterer needs to be thawed on that particular morning, showering before departure is optional.

Even for the well-rested, maintaining consciousness throughout the day is a struggle. Put a dairy farmer in a warm room gazing at a slide of some guy performing a respirator “fit” test and you’ve got a recipe for first-degree whiplash. Caffeine flows like a river in the room.

Make no mistake, PAT is an exercise not just of pesticide knowledge but of perseverance and endurance. It’s an educational immersion experience. For some participants, the last time they were in a classroom as a student was during the Kennedy administration.

Finally, after viewing 250 slides, it’s time for the dreaded test. The green computer-graded answer sheets are distributed. These are littered with empty boxes and circles that can barely be deciphered by an Air Force fighter pilot. Seventy-year old men begin to reach for their bifocals, now wishing they had gotten trifocals, or perhaps an electron microscope. Planting 600 acres of corn seems trivial to filling-out contact information on the answer sheet.

At this point, the only thing standing between escape and that elusive pesticide applicator certification card is 70 questions formulated and graded by some guy in a Madison office. Along with caffeine, sweat and adrenaline begin to flow.

The room goes quiet except for the sound of turning pages and erasers. One by one trainees begin to rise and clutch their completed test papers in the same manner a hunter holds a pheasant around the neck after the kill. Freedom—sweet freedom for five more years. It’s graduation day at spray school.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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