SUN­DAY, JULY 2, 2017 Worry over dicamba grips farm­ers in state

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - STEPHEN STEED

YARBRO — Tom Burn­ham farms 7,500 acres of soy­beans in Mis­sis­sippi County and in two of Mis­souri’s boot heel coun­ties.

“Ev­ery acre that has been planted long enough to show dam­age has that dam­age,” Burn­ham said re­cently from his farm shop in Yarbro (Mis­sis­sippi County), an un­in­cor­po­rated town about 4 miles north of down­town Blytheville and an even shorter ride by trac­tor to the Mis­souri-Arkansas line.

The dam­age, he said, is from dicamba, a her­bi­cide used by some farm­ers in their fight against pig­weed, which has grown re­sis­tant to glyphosate, com­monly known as Roundup.

Burn­ham is among hun­dreds of Arkansas farm­ers who have re­ported crop dam­age to the state Plant Board, a part of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. Nearly 500 com­plaints had been filed as of Thurs­day, com­pared to about two dozen last year.

The Plant Board voted 9-5 on June 23 to rec­om­mend an emer­gency 120-day ban on the sale and use of dicamba. Gov. Asa Hutchin­son signed off on a 120-day ban Fri­day, but it re­quires ap­proval of a leg­isla­tive panel.

Work­ing with other con­sul­tants, Ford Bald­win, a con­sul­tant from Austin in Lonoke County and a for­mer weed sci­en­tist with the Univer­sity of Arkansas Sys­tem Di­vi­sion of Agri­cul­ture, de­vel­oped a “con­ser­va­tive” es­ti­mate of up to 1 mil­lion acres of dam­aged soy­beans.

Bald­win has made sev­eral trips into north­east Arkansas since the first com­plaints were filed in early June.

At a mar­ket rate of $10 a bushel for beans and with a 25 per­cent re­duc­tion in yield at harvest, the cost to soy­bean farm­ers alone could be $250 mil­lion, he said. “I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” Bald­win said. “This is dev­as­tat­ing. It will put a lot of peo­ple out of busi­ness. Farm­ing can’t take that kind of loss.”

Fur­ther dam­age can be stopped now — if the ban were in place, he said. If dicamba spray­ing con­tin­ues into July, as plants move into the re­pro­duc­tive stage, the prob­lems will worsen and

move be­yond yield loss into seed pro­duc­tion, he said.

While soy­beans are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to dicamba, farm­ers also are re­port­ing dam­age to wa­ter­mel­ons, veg­eta­bles and peanuts. Res­i­dents in towns such as Keiser, Bay and Rec­tor have re­ported dam­age to their trees, shrubs and veg­etable gar­dens.

Sue Gil­li­han, owner of Sue’s Gar­den in Scott (Lonoke County), is not among them.

She lost 8,000 heir­loom tomato plants to an off-tar­get blast of dicamba last year, halt­ing her sales to Kroger and Fresh Mar­ket gro­cery stores. “We were just too afraid to [grow them] again this year,” Gil­li­han said.

“There are no win­ners in this big ol’ mess,” Danny Du­ni­gan, a farm con­sul­tant in Mis­sis­sippi and Craig­head coun­ties, said re­cently dur­ing a lunch break away from the field.

The suc­cess of Roundup helped Mon­santo be­come the cor­po­rate giant it is to­day.

“Roundup saved farm­ers who were only marginally tal­ented to be­gin with,” Du­ni­gan said. “Roundup helped them be­come re­ally good farm­ers.”

But farm­ers’ over-re­liance on the her­bi­cide led to tougher weeds, such as pig­weed, that have de­vel­oped a tol­er­ance to it.

“Roundup was a sil­ver bul­let, but I can prom­ise you, dicamba is not your sil­ver bul­let,” Du­ni­gan said. “We’ve got a lot of farm­ers — true farm­ers — just scratch­ing their heads on what to do next.”

With Roundup be­com­ing in­ef­fec­tive, Mon­santo ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied cot­ton and soy­bean seeds to be tol­er­ant of dicamba. The com­pany be­gan mar­ket­ing its Xtend tech­nol­ogy — the dicamba cot­ton in 2015 and the dicamba soy­beans in 2016 — de­spite not yet hav­ing fed­eral ap­proval for the ac­com­pa­ny­ing her­bi­cide.

Arkansas farm­ers planted only a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand acres of Xtend beans last year. Mon­santo has said that its Xtend beans are on 1.5 mil­lion acres in Arkansas this year. With about 3 mil­lion acres de­voted to soy­beans each year, Arkansas con­sis­tently is among the na­tion’s 10 largest soy­bean pro­duc­ers.

In­creased acreage of the Xtend beans led to an in­crease in spray­ing of dicamba, and the in­creased use of dicamba led to the in­crease in com­plaints.

XTORTION BEANS

Only one dicamba for­mu­la­tion — BASF’s En­ge­nia — is reg­is­tered for in-crop use in Arkansas. Mon­santo’s new dicamba her­bi­cide, called Xtendi­max with Va­porGrip, won fed­eral ap­proval in De­cem­ber but wasn’t al­lowed in Arkansas this year by the Plant Board be­cause Mon­santo hadn’t al­lowed weed sci­en­tists with the state to study the her­bi­cide’s volatil­ity.

That study was un­der­way this sum­mer — un­til the UA’s ex­per­i­ment field at Keiser in Mis­sis­sippi County was hit by off-tar­get drift.

“Mon­santo never should have been al­lowed to sell the seed un­til the her­bi­cide was avail­able,” Burn­ham, the Mis­sis­sippi County soy­bean farmer, said. “A lot of peo­ple around here are call­ing the Xtend beans the Xtortion beans, be­cause they’re hav­ing to plant the dicamba crops as a de­fense mech­a­nism.”

The Plant Board, he said, is work­ing hard to pro­tect all farm­ers. “It’s the most proac­tive board in the United States, and those UA weed sci­en­tists are the best in the busi­ness. And I say that as an ASU [Arkansas State Univer­sity] man.”

Burn­ham said the sit­u­a­tion will get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter.

“Once the fields dry up and with peo­ple think­ing there’s a dead­line or ban fac­ing them, they’ll be spray­ing night and day,” he said.

Burn­ham said few, if any, farm­ers be­lieve the prob­lems are caused by phys­i­cal drift of the her­bi­cide. In­stead, on warm nights with no wind, the chem­i­cal is lift­ing off the sprayed plants and con­vert­ing back to a liq­uid or gas form and trav­el­ing miles off tar­get, Burn­ham said.

“This stuff is lift­ing it­self off plants at night and mov­ing,” he said.

Some 16 days af­ter the first signs of dam­age were spot­ted, his plants have yet to grow out of the dam­age, he said. “That’s not a very good sign of things to come,” he said.

Du­ni­gan, the north­east Arkansas farm con­sul­tant, said he didn’t doubt that some farm­ers are us­ing the il­le­gal, more volatile dicamba. Spray­ing En­ge­nia, he said, costs farm­ers about $9 an acre, com­pared with about $2 an acre for other for­mu­la­tions.

“The over­all farm econ­omy is forc­ing farm­ers to cut cor­ners and try to save money, but in do­ing so, they are de­stroy­ing re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships,” he said.

Asked if there is a so­lu­tion, Du­ni­gan said, “Ei­ther we all adopt the Xtend tech­nol­ogy or none of us do, be­cause there is no way both crop sys­tems can co-ex­ist with­out caus­ing dam­age to some­body. But if we all go with the Xtend tech­nol­ogy, that doesn’t pre­vent dam­age to peanuts, mel­ons and peo­ple’s gar­dens and trees.”

DIS­PUTE TURNED DEADLY

In Bay, on the south­east­ern edge of Jones­boro, Sharon Pa­gan said her tomato gar­den and trees have been dam­aged. “The Plant Board in­spec­tor said the toma­toes might not even ripen, so we’re giv­ing them out so peo­ple can have fried green toma­toes,” she said.

A neigh­bor’s plum tree also ap­pears to be dead, af­ter years of pro­duc­ing fruit, she said.

A cou­ple of miles north of Leachville, near the Mis­souri line, work­ers with H-2A farm visas pick bell pep­pers at Hawkins Farms. Some 160 acres of cu­cum­bers, squash, cab­bage, can­taloupe, wa­ter­mel­ons, pep­pers and zuc­chini and a test plot farmed by Cole Hawkins so far are un­scathed, but the 1,200 acres of peanuts and 2,200 acres of cot­ton be­ing raised by his three sons haven’t been as for­tu­nate.

The peanuts have been hit by dicamba, and the cot­ton by 2,4-D, Hawkins said. Any yield loss won’t be known un­til closer to harvest this fall, he said.

Hawkins, whose fam­ily pri­mar­ily raised cot­ton for decades, in­vested heav­ily in the pro­duce busi­ness a cou­ple of years ago, in­clud­ing the con­struc­tion of a fa­cil­ity where veg­eta­bles are washed, sorted by size, re­frig­er­ated and packed for ship­ping.

Dicamba threat­ens that in­vest­ment and hard work, he said.

Hawkins’ brother-in-law, Mike Wal­lace, 55, of nearby Monette, was shot and killed last Oc­to­ber dur­ing a dis­pute with a farm hand of an­other farmer over dicamba dam­age to Wal­lace’s crops. The first­de­gree mur­der trial of Cur­tis Al­lan Jones has been set for Septem­ber 11-15 in Mis­sis­sippi County Cir­cuit Court in Blytheville.

“No amount of crop dam­age can equal that (Wal­lace’s death),” Hawkins said, “but this is get­ting re­ally se­ri­ous.”

In Tru­mann, Gary Good­win, 62, has all but shut down his pro­duce stand af­ter his 4-acre com­mer­cial gar­den of toma­toes, wa­ter­mel­ons and can­taloupe was hit by dicamba. Al­most ev­ery­thing is dead, putting an end to a busi­ness that brings in about $35,000 a year. His crops were dam­aged last year too, he said.

“They knew dicamba had prob­lems last year, but they let it be sprayed again,” he said. “I’m just a small farmer whose liveli­hood had been taken away.”

With­out En­ge­nia, farm­ers who have planted the dicamba-tol­er­ant seeds can still use Roundup, even though much of its ef­fec­tive­ness against pig­weed has been lost. They also can turn to hoe-wield­ing crews to re­move weeds from the fields — a job that all but dis­ap­peared af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion, and suc­cess, of Roundup.

Danny Finch of Jones­boro, a Plant Board mem­ber and Jones­boro farmer whose crops have been dam­aged, said he had a seven-mem­ber crew who just fin­ished hand-weed­ing 88 acres. At $9 an hour per worker, clear­ing that field of weeds cost $2,200, he said.

Reed Storey, a Marvell farmer, planted a few acres of the Xtend beans as a buf­fer around beans not dicamba tol­er­ant but isn’t spray­ing En­ge­nia, to make sure he doesn’t hurt neigh­bors’ crops.

Storey had more than 400 acres of crops dam­aged last year, re­sult­ing in $70,000 in yield losses. Some 60-170 acres show vary­ing signs of dam­age so far this year, he said. “Had we not planted some Xtend (crops), all we have would be dam­aged,” Storey told the Plant Board re­cently.

Perry Gal­loway of Gregory in Woodruff County has seen the ups and downs of Arkansas agri­cul­ture in just three sea­sons.

In 2015, he won the state’s soy­bean-grow­ing con­test, with a per-acre yield of 108.76 bushels. In 2016, he had to plow up about a hun­dred acres of beans be­cause of an in­fes­ta­tion of pig­weed. In 2017, he switched to Mon­santo’s dicamba-tol­er­ant crops and, af­ter one round so far of spray­ing En­ge­nia on 4,894 acres of soy­beans on 65 fields, he’s free of pig­weed.

“I’m sleep­ing a lot bet­ter at night,” he said re­cently. “It’s nice driv­ing home, see­ing all those clean fields.”

Gal­loway said he doesn’t agree with the Plant Board’s rec­om­men­da­tion to ban En­ge­nia but rec­og­nizes its predica­ment.

He looked at dam­aged crops in Craig­head and Mis­sis­sippi coun­ties and in the Mis­souri boot heel last week. “There was dam­age as far as the eye could see,” he said. “I am def­i­nitely for the tech­nol­ogy, but I will say we cer­tainly have a prob­lem,” Gal­loway said.

Gal­loway ac­ci­den­tally hit a neigh­bor’s farm with a dose of En­ge­nia, likely be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of phys­i­cal drift and the chem­i­cal’s in­ver­sion overnight into a gas.

“I fol­lowed the la­bel and did the very best I could,” he said.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STEPHEN STEED

Soy­bean plants in a field at Yarbro in Mis­sis­sippi County show signs of dicamba dam­age. The her­bi­cide, ef­fec­tive on in­va­sive pig­weed, can dam­age soy­bean plants that aren’t ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to be re­sis­tant.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STEPHEN STEED

Farm work­ers pick bell pep­pers at Hawkins Farms north of Leachville in Mis­sis­sippi County. The 160 acres of pep­pers, squash, zuc­chini and other veg­eta­bles on the farm have not been dam­aged by the her­bi­cide dicamba.

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