Regulators flooded with damage claims, while one Arkansas family buries a loved one
Recent over-the-top approval for dicamba herbicides might provide more options for farmers, but it doesn’t ease the sting of drift damage for many—those who suffered crop damage or the family of one farmer who lost his life over the issue.
In early November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved XtendiMax with VaporGrip technology for over-the-top use in soybeans and cotton. “We’ve found XtendiMax has significantly lower volatility than Clarity,” says Ryan Rubischko, Monsanto North America dicamba portfolio lead. The company says the reduced volatility, if label instructions are followed, should reduce off-target movement.
Monsanto expects Xtend will reach 15 million soybean acres and 3 million cotton acres in its brands, not including acres the company’s nearly 100 licensee brands will acquire.
The Xtend seed technology was approved in 2015. There’s ample evidence many farmers illegally used older formulations of dicamba over the top of their crops this season, damaging soybean and cotton in 10 states.
That damage was deadly for one Arkansas farmer. On the night of Oct. 27, 55-year-old Mike Wallace was found shot allegedly after a dispute with a local farm manager over widespread dicamba damage in Wallace’s fields (see below for his story).
Wallace’s hometown of Monette in northeast Arkansas is in an area that showed heavy dicamba damage this season. Since July, the Missouri Department of Agriculture has received 92 dicamba complaints, up from 27 throughout all of 2015. Northeast Arkansas has seen dicamba complaints double in the past year, according to the state’s plant board.
“Our office handled a lot more calls [for dicamba drift] than we have in the past,” says Ray Benson, Extension agent for Mississippi County, Ark. In a year like this one, when margins are thin, farmers feel pressure to do what it takes to save their operations. “When people are desperate, they do desperate things,” he says.
Herbicide-resistant weeds plague farmers across the U.S. Recently, palmer amaranth and waterhemp have developed resistance to PPO inhibitors, such as Cobra or Flexstar, one of the final remaining effective herbicide options in soybeans, says Tom Barber, University of Arkansas Extension weed scientist. Dicamba still proves effective against these troublesome weeds, Barber says.
As of this past summer, dicamba had been approved only for preplant and burndown use. Older formulations of the herbicide are known for their propensity to move off target by drift or vapor volatility, damaging soybean or cotton plants that lack tolerance.
Even with the recent approval of the lower volatility formulation, Monsanto reminds herbicide applicators it’s still critical to read and follow label directions to avoid drift, volatility and resistance. “Application requirements are still key. For example, use the appropriate nozzles with specific pressures,” Monsanto’s Rubischko says. According to XtendiMax’s label:
- Use only TeeJet TTI11004 nozzle with 63 psi maximum.
- Don’t exceed 15 mph.
- Spray boom cannot surpass 24" above crop canopy or target pest.
- Apply a minimum of 10 gal. of spray solution per acre.
- Hooded sprayers can reduce drift.
Carefully read the label about wind restrictions and other requirements.
New lower volatility formulations of dicamba herbicide took longer than anticipated to get through regulatory approval. “It has become so difficult to get herbicides and all pesticides through the EPA approval process for a number of reasons,” says Bart Kempf, an attorney in the pesticide industry.
A big hurdle to obtaining predictable and timely regulatory approvals is how often environmental groups file lawsuits against EPA, Kempf says. The groups increasingly accuse EPA of not following rules requiring the agency to assess risk to protected species.
“This is a massive issue the EPA is dealing with,” Kempf says. “It’s really having a negative impact on the regulatory process and has put the EPA in a situation where it is concerned about litigation threats, which can slow down product approvals.”
In southeast Missouri, corn and soybean farmer Sam Branum says another farmer’s illegal application of dicamba kept him from retirement for another year. This summer, 500 of his 700 soybean acres showed cupping, the tell-tale sign of dicamba damage.
“I lost $100 an acre in yield,” Branum says. He’s considering switching to dicamba tolerant crops, not necessarily because he wants to, but because he feels it’s necessary to protect himself and his operation.
“Even when the herbicide gets approval, it won’t change anything,” Branum says, at least for one subset of farmers. “Those farmers want to do what’s cheap, no matter who it hurts.”
If someone’s drift damages another field, he or she can be fined for each proven violation. “Typically, complaints are evenly split between farmers and commercial applicators,” the Missouri Department of Agriculture said in a recent email to Farm Journal. “This year, the majority of complaints have been on farmers.”
Farmers who believe they experienced drift damage should follow procedures to ensure justice is served on their farm, according to Extension agents, state plant boards and farmers who have filed complaints. Contact local Extension agents or your nearest USDA office for information on filing complaints about herbicide damage.
In a year with such tight margins, it’s easy for tempers to flare when a neighbor’s actions cause loss of income. But it’s critical to keep a level head to avoid tragedy, something the family of Mike Wallace can attest to.
“Disagreements happen every year, but they usually don’t end like this,” says Bob Scott, University of Arkansas Extension weed scientist, after Wallace’s death. “It’s unfortunate and shocking that this happened over an herbicide.”
He Lived His Life as a Good Example
The line of mourners stretched across the parking lot of First Baptist Church, Monette, Ark., where Mike and Karen Wallace had worshipped for years before Mike Wallace’s death in late October.
The 55-year-old husband, father and grandfather was found shot dead after an alleged dispute with Allan “Curtis” Jones, 26, of nearby Arbyrd, Mo. Jones, a farm manager, said he and Wallace had argued over dicamba drift, according to Mississippi County Sheriff Dale Cook. Jones was charged with first-degree murder. His representatives didn’t return calls from Farm Journal seeking comment by press time.
Dicamba drift is an ongoing issue on Wallace’s 5,000-acre farm. He had filed complaints with the Arkansas Plant Board two years in a row for dicamba damage and told The Wall Street Journal in August 40% of his soybean fields had damage.
Family, friends and neighbors recall his warm kindness, generosity, love of farming and faith. “He was my friend,” says Rusty Bird, First Baptist’s pastor. Wallace was a hands-on farmer who led by example, Bird adds.
He was passionate about preserving the land and was an early adopter of cover crops. His favorite crop was cotton, but he worked diligently to get better on every acre, his friends say.
“He was always going to make sure it was done the right way,” says Justin Hawkins, Wallace’s nephew. “He taught me to pay attention to what the crop wants and needs.” Wallace also farmed with his son, Bradley, who says he and his wife, Michele, will preserve his legacy in the years ahead. He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Karen, and daughter and son-in-law, Kimberly and Todd Baumgartner. He had three grandchildren, with one expected to arrive in February.
“When I think of Uncle Mike, I see a family man,” says Kyle Priest, another of Wallace’s nephews. “Just seeing him live his life was a good example for any man. His children carry on those same qualities.”