Region 8 News Investigation: Dicamba Dilemma

(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - For countless farm families across Region 8, the farm is an integral part of their daily lives.

In years past, a successful yield was mostly dependent on Mother Nature. Floods, droughts, and everything in between have affected the outcome of a harvest in Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri.

In recent years, the ability to turn a profit has become even more difficult for some, due to an herbicide that kills broadleaf weeds, known as dicamba.

While the weed-killer has been on the market for decades, dicamba-tolerant or -resistant seeds are changing the game and, some argue, not in a good way.

"Dicamba was never meant to be used over the top of a crop," said Republican Arkansas Senator Blake Johnson.

A farmer himself, Johnson represents District 20. His constituents come from Clay, Lawrence, Greene, and parts of Randolph and Craighead Counties, all prominent farming communities.

"A lot of the news in the past year has been around dicamba," Johnson said. "The old technology of dicamba that's been around since the '50s."

He explained that version of dicamba is meant to be put on the soil, as a pre-emergent to kill weeds before planting.

"In an 'unmixed' state, it has a relatively high degree of volatility, meaning that once applied to an area, it easily evaporates and can become wind-borne, which can lead to off-target drift," the University of Arkansas Extension Office said in a November 2016 post about dicamba.

According to UAEX, newer formulations of dicamba are significantly less volatile.

"This new technology is much safer," Johnson said. "We don't want those old technologies being used on the beans and cotton that we have now."

While the new technology is safer, it wasn't approved by the Environmental Protection Agency until November 2016, months after the EPA gave Monsanto the go-ahead to sell dicamba-resistant cotton and soybean seeds in the spring of that year. Lawsuits filed by Region 8 farmers allege the company "knew purchasers would have to illegally spray dicamba to protect their crops from weeds."

In Region 8, issues related to dicamba have made headlines for months. In October 2016, Leachville farmer Mike Wallace was shot to death after a verbal argument about dicamba drifting onto his property. In December, Bader Peach Farms of Campbell, MO sued Monsanto over the illegal spraying of dicamba. This February, farmers in Arkansas and Missouri became part of a 10-state, class-action lawsuit against Monsanto for illegal dicamba spraying.

"We've had problems in the past, but not near to this magnitude that we're about to have," Cole Hawkins said.

Hawkins has been farming in the Leachville area since the 1980s. Recently, he, like many farmers in the area, has branched out from just planting cotton.

"I think we can grow anything in this area. We have the right soil type and the right climate," Hawkins said. "Now, we're raising some peanuts. Last year, we started raising some vegetables that we're trying to market. That's a new venture for us, trying to diversify from one crop."

Unfortunately, some of those fruits and vegetables are susceptible to damage by dicamba drift.

One Region 8 farmer found that out the hard way.

In Southeast Missouri, Bader Peach Farms reported damage to 30,000 trees across their acreage in Campbell in 2016.

The damage they say dicamba left behind resulted in a loss of $1.5 million in gross sales in 2015. They said the smaller size of the peaches affected by dicamba ultimately cut their volume production by 40%.

Farmers, especially those like Hawkins who have recently started planting fruits and vegetables, fear that if changes aren't made soon, their new venture could prove futile. But, there is hope.

"We've gotta put some teeth into these penalties, we've gotta protect our farmers," Senator Dave Wallace said.

Wallace, who comes from a 5th generation farming family in Leachville, represents Arkansas Senate District 22 in Mississippi, Poinsett, and parts of Craighead Counties.

He said new legislation is being drafted to deter the illegal spraying of dicamba. He knows his constituents have been suffering, and knows it's going to take changes at the state level to help.

"If folks are not gonna be good neighbors with their neighbors, if they're gonna take actions that hurt their neighbors, if they come from a state where those laws are not enforced, and they come to our part of the country, they need to live by our rules," Wallace said.

He plans to co-sponsor a bill with Johnson to increase penalties for those who spray dicamba illegally.

"You get those penalties up high enough, and that's per instance, that's going to get somebody's attention," Wallace said. "If you keep it at $1,000, the penalty doesn't serve as a deterrent."

"Risk versus benefit," Johnson said. "When your risk of penalty is low, then the benefit on using the product is cheaper, is better than the risk."

Johnson said he's currently drafting a bill to enhance penalties in dicamba and dicamba-related products which "are growth regulators and are volatile, and can damage crops adjacent to you."

"It'll be up to $25,000. The plant board will have to determine the egregiousness of it, whether it was negligent and whether the applicant meant to do that and knowingly went against the label of the product," Johnson said.

Hawkins knows the wheels of change have been set in motion to find a solution, but until those changes come, he said communication between everyone is key.

"The chemical companies need to work with the universities and things and let them test it and see," Hawkins said. "We don't need to just approve it and go 100% hog wild with it. We need to try it and see what will work."

Region 8 News reached out to Monsanto about the allegations made in multiple lawsuits. They say the lawsuits are baseless.

"These baseless lawsuits seek unprecedented expansions of the law by attempting to impose liability on a company that did not make the product that allegedly caused the damage, did not sell the product that allegedly caused the damage, and, in fact, warned against the very use of the product alleged in the complaint."

Monsanto explained that other herbicides are approved for use on their Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton.

"[B]oth offer many benefits other than dicamba tolerance.  Bollgard II XtendFlex offers tolerance to both glyphosate and glufosinate herbicides and includes many of our most advanced cotton varieties.  Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans are tolerant to glyphosate and include our newest, highest yielding soybean varieties. Due to the superior quality of these seed varieties, coupled with the ability to make in-crop applications of approved herbicide products, they offered farmers strong yield potential -- even without the ability to make in-crop applications of dicamba herbicide. In fact, Monsanto did not charge growers for the dicamba trait because the herbicide had not been approved for over-the-top use.  Moreover, before, during and after farmers purchased their seed, Monsanto took many steps to warn growers, dealers and applicators that dicamba was not approved for in-crop use.  Simply put, Monsanto does not condone or encourage the illegal use of any pesticide.  We remain confident that most farmers abide by the law, but if some did not, they should bear responsibility in this instance."-- Charla Lord, Corporate Engagement - Monsanto Company

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