University of Arizona (UA) weed specialist Barry Tickes is a modern day Maytag appliance repairman of sorts.

The Maytag repairman featured in 1970s television commercials lacked enough work due to Maytag’s product claims of high dependability and infrequent appliance breakdowns.

Likewise, Tickes eagerly awaits new herbicide formulas for specialty crops, but the wait is long. New herbicide product introductions are rare for the specialty crop industry.

A key reason is the price to bring a pesticide to market. Costs to a chemical company to bring a pesticide from concept to market can take 10 years with a price tag of several hundred million dollars.

Due to these high costs, chemical companies are utilizing technology to reinvent older herbicides introduced up to 50 years ago. Companies and weed researchers are developing new uses for older herbicides, plus generating new product formulations and application techniques.

Tickes is a UA area Extension agent based at the Yuma Agricultural Center in Yuma, Ariz. He is busier than ever testing these new herbicide products to bring potential weed solutions to growers.

“Some older products have been around for 40 to 50 years. This is a testament to their value rather than just being old and obsolete,” Tickes told farmers, pest control advisers, and industry representatives at the 2011 Fall Desert Crops Workshop held in El Centro, Calif., in November.

The workshop was conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Imperial County, and by the UA Extension Service, Yuma County. Western Farm Press sponsored the workshop.

High product development costs also mean chemical companies are investing more existing pesticide research and research (R&D) dollars where the most revenue can be generated — in other words spending a larger chunk of the R&D budget on products for larger acreage crops.

Today, U.S. crop production includes about 86 million acres of field corn, 75 million acres of soybeans, 55 million acres of wheat, 21 million acres of alfalfa, and 9-plus million acres of cotton.

These gargantuan numbers dwarf specialty crop acreage which includes 151,000 acres of head lettuce and 37,000 acres each of spinach and cauliflower.

Today, 60-plus herbicides are registered for weed control in field corn and soybeans. More than 20 herbicides help prevent weeds in cotton. Fewer than 10 herbicides are registered for cole crops, lettuce, melons, and spinach.

“Companies are in business to develop new products and make money but they have to pay the bills,” Tickes explained. “There is a lot more money to be made in a corn crop with 90 million acres compared to 37,000 acres of spinach.”