Illegal spraying carries heavy consequences
Bob Griffin was rolling down Highway 49, past a carpet of farmland, when he saw the damage. Nothing in particular caught his eye, but the initial suspicion compelled him to pull onto a turn row splitting 100 acres of soybeans outside of Marvell, Ark. Something was off about the crop. He walked into R3 soybeans, already podded up, and saw cobra-headed damage on leaves tapering across the field. Griffin’s consultant instinct was inescapable: telltale signs of dicamba drift.
Where the grip of Palmer amaranth intensifies and expands each season, dicamba controversy is exploding beyond fields of Monsanto’s Xtend soybeans in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. Yield loss is merely the bottom rung of concern. Growers fear repercussions could cut off access to desperately needed dicamba-related technology or poison the grain well by slamming marketers.
Producer Curtis Storey didn’t panic when Griffin brought the dicamba news. Storey sought out a neighboring farmer growing Xtend soybeans and was assured the damage was a one-off. But Griffin’s initial 100-acre report was only the beginning. A week later, 85 additional acres of damage. Tack on 48 more acres. Then 62, 115, 50 and 35. Almost 500 acres of Storey’s land is affected in varying degrees by dicamba damage, with no guarantee the numbers won’t climb higher.
Storey farms 4,800 acres in Phillips County, Ark., and points to a massive gap between typical drift issues and off-label dicamba applications. “This was illegal spraying and something entirely different. It was also done in repeated applications over time,” he explains. “No farmer, and I mean not a single one, can plead ignorance. Everyone knows not to use dicamba over the top. I’m paying the costs for someone else’s pigweed control.”
When Monsanto debuted Xtend soybean technology in 2016, seed sales were accompanied with concise and clear warnings: Do not apply dicamba. Xtend crops are designed to withstand dicamba, but with no label approval for a new formulation, the herbicide-tolerance is technically academic. However, a quick look at eastern Arkansas soybean fields suggests the technicality is trumped by human nature. Placing a pigweed weapon just beyond the legal reach of producers is too tempting for some.
“In-crop use of dicamba is still in review by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. The EPA has indicated the review will be completed by late summer or fall,” says Kyel Richard, product communications lead, Monsanto.
The company has developed low-volatility dicamba formulations with VaporGrip technology to help limit the chances of off-target movement, he adds. “Dicamba will be an important part of The Roundup Ready Plus Crop Management Solutions platform, but until approved, it’s against the law to use dicamba in-crop with Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans or Boll-gard II XtendFlex cotton.”
Griffin knows of five farmers affected by dicamba drift just in Phillips County, Ark, but the damage extends across a great deal of acreage in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. “It’s like a dicamba bomb going off,” he says. “Some farmers have blatantly done what they want to do. They think they won’t get caught, but they don’t understand the power of dicamba.”
Whether physical drift or the vapor of volatilization, soybeans are extremely sensitive to dicamba. “All it takes is about one-and-a-half hundredths of an ounce per acre to get damage and symptomatology,” Griffin says. Growers sometimes inadvertently load the dicamba gun aimed at their own crops. In 2016, one of Griffin’s farmer-clients used a mini-bulk container containing dicamba residue to spray Prefix herbicide across a soybean field after emergence. No drift or volatility was required to hammer 1,000 acres of soybeans.
“Some farmers have blatantly done what they want to do. They think they won’t get caught, but they don’t understand the power of dicamba,” says Bob Griffin, crop consultant.
Robert Goodson, Phillips County Extension row crops agent with the University of Arkansas, echoes concerns of dicamba potency. “Just three one-hundredths of an ounce can result in a 30% to 40% yield loss. Even an incredibly low rate can cause major yield loss at the right stage of production.”
And what will be the overall effect on Storey’s fields? Dicamba’s hormonal chemistry causes tissue to elongate as plants essentially grow themselves to death. Affected leaves take the cupped appearance of a hooded snake head. Soybean growth stage (maximum susceptibility occurs during R1) and dicamba concentration are critical to tallying damage, but Griffin can only estimate probable yield loss. “I think the bare minimum will be 10%, but that’s absolute minimum. It could be far worse at harvest.”
Storey finds himself staring into yield darkness, uncertain about percent damage and if affected soybeans will remain below 500 acres. University specialists and industry experts have pegged potential losses in parts of his fields at 50%. “Money cleaned out of my pocket and pigweed cleaned out of someone’s field,” he says.
As the affected acreage mounted, Storey found himself with few options and contacted the Arkansas State Plant Board. “I’ve never been involved with class action suits or any of that mess. I didn’t want to do this, but my hand was forced. Even Monsanto told me to report it to the Plant Board,” he says.
The maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine; a slap on the wrist. However the Plant Board has formed a civil penalty study group to consider raising the fine. Susie Nichols, agri division manager for the Plant Board, says the organization has received 24 complaints in 2016 regarding dicamba drift in soybeans, peanuts and watermelons. “The cases are under investigation so I can’t yet confirm dicamba,” she says.
Storey takes no solace in small penalties. “$1,000 fine? Sure, that’ll stop them,” he says with heavy dismay. “I’ve had people tell me to keep quiet or we might lose the technology. That’s false reasoning to blame me since I’m not the one breaking the law. Multiple people have continued making dicamba applications over the top. This is going on in other counties and states. Everybody knows it.”
In Phillips County, there are 230,000 acres of soybeans, but there’s nothing unique about the situation, Goodson adds. “This is no anomaly and we all know it’s happening in lots of places.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is conducting investigations into more than 100 dicamba-related complaints in 2016 spread across four southeast counties. “This is well above the average of 75 general complaints we typically see statewide,” says Sarah Alsager, public information officer.
Scotty Frasier, a salesman with Farmers Supply in Marvell, Ark., says the ripple effect could reach far beyond affected fields. “We’re all wondering what the ramifications will be, but one thing is for sure, the noise is getting louder,” he says.
The stakes are high as the 2016 growing season unfolds: dicamba soybean purchases at local elevators, international market questions, the prospect of a further tightening of the regulatory noose or even the loss of dicamba technology. Storey says anyone who claims his concerns are overblown is ignorant of the grain chain: “My ultimate question is the foreign market. Will the granary handle my beans mixed with my neighbor’s dicamba beans?” he asks.
Storey’s question requires a great deal of navel gazing. Why? Nobody knows what might crawl out of
Pandora’s grain box. When Monsanto released Xtend technology, growers were given explicit instructions on the illegality of dicamba applications. However, the company also released a technology knowing chemicals were only a shelf away. Simple human nature: A small percentage of growers will cheat and other growers will pay the price. Dangle a pigweed smoker in front of farmers and someone will use it, regardless of legality.
“Chemical companies should not put folks on the honor system,” Storey says. “Did Monsanto really believe all farmers would be honest? It’s tough for me to believe they didn’t see this abuse coming.”