Hearing in Little Rock to argue curb on dicamba

Posted: November 8, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas farmers will fill a Little Rock hotel's ballroom today when the state Plant Board considers how they can use dicamba on next year's soybeans.

The board, a division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, voted 16-0 in late September to prohibit the herbicide's use on cropland between April 16 and Oct. 31, but Arkansas law required that the recommendation be submitted to 30 days of public comment and then be referred to a public hearing.

That hearing begins at 9 a.m. in the first-floor ballroom of the Embassy Suites hotel. The ballroom seats 500; the room normally used by the Plant Board and filled for such meetings holds only 90.

The board said it received more than 25,000 comments from Oct. 1-30, mostly from overseas. The Agriculture Department will provide the board a breakdown on commentators' positions today.

To Monsanto and many Arkansas farmers who planted the company's new dicamba-tolerant soybeans, dicamba is the only cost-effective tool remaining to fight "superweeds" that have grown resistant to glyphosate, another herbicide better known as Monsanto's Roundup.

"I farm in eastern Arkansas, 5,000 acres," Nathan Gregory, of Little Rock, wrote. "We farm ground favorable to [p]igweed. It was running rampant until Dicamba resistant soybeans were available. This year the crops are the cleanest ever and yields are through the roof."

To farmers who planted conventional soybeans or other varieties, dicamba is a threat to those crops, as well as to fruits, vegetables, peanuts and ornamental shrubs and trees not dicamba tolerant.

Robert Sellers, of North Little Rock, wrote that farmers who grow organic vegetables could lose certification for up to three years if their fields are hit by dicamba. "Also, think about the small backyard vegetable and fruit growers ... You can bet in many of those cases what they lost could have helped these families just to get by and save a little money also."

To thousands of people overseas, the Plant Board's recommendation against Monsanto's herbicide verges on heroism.

"I encourage your Board to do what is right and fight for it," Maria Silva of New Zealand wrote. "Keep the faith, 'David,' and slay the greedy giant for good."

Matt Smith, a Mississippi County farmer, said public comments from outside the state should be discounted. "I don't want to knock anybody, but this is an Arkansas issue, not one of saving the world or shutting down Monsanto," he said. The number of comments has grown since the board's initial estimate and some 30,000 comments came from overseas, according to Smith's review of the comments, now posted on the agriculture department's website.

Smith, who favors a compromise date of May 25, said he believed more Arkansas farmers oppose the April 16 cutoff date than support it.

The Plant Board this year received nearly 1,000 complaints of dicamba damage, mainly to soybeans, compared with about two dozen last year. Regulators in 23 other soybean-producing states this year reported another 1,700 complaints.

The April-October cutoff date would render new dicamba formulations -- produced by Monsanto, BASF and DuPont -- useless to farmers during the height of their soybeans' growth.

Some 300 farmers, via petition, seek middle ground: a May 25 cutoff date, which would allow farmers to get at least one application of the herbicide across their dicamba-tolerant beans.

While the Plant Board last month rejected the proposal, largely because it would give an advantage to farmers in south Arkansas, where planting begins earlier, its members agreed to consider it again today.

"We'll make our presentation, maybe a few individuals will speak, but we'll try not to be redundant," said Grant Ballard, a Little Rock lawyer representing those farmers, said Tuesday. "My clients, they just want access to the best available technology so they can produce crops to the best of their availability."

Supporters of the restrictions include Nathan Reed, of Marianna, who said he plants nongenetically modified crops to save money and as a way to promote diversity in crops. "I too have to deal with pigweed," he wrote. "I manage pigweed with a system of crop rotations, cover crops, and a combination of residual products. My pigweed management requires effort and training. But it works."

The Plant Board and Monsanto, which opposes any cutoff date, have been at odds since November 2016, when the board refused to allow Monsanto's Xtendimax dicamba into the Arkansas market. The board cited a long-standing, although unwritten, policy requiring manufacturers to permit state weed scientists to study their products before they're allowed on the market. (Monsanto allowed the weed scientists to study the chemical for its effectiveness against weeds but not for off-target movement.)

Monsanto, in September, criticized the board and weed scientists with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, accusing them of bias. In October, Monsanto sued Arkansas, asking a judge to overturn the board's decision to ban Xtendimax.

The Plant Board allowed only BASF's Engenia into Arkansas this year because it underwent testing, though limited, by weed scientists.

Monsanto disputes claims that volatility -- when a herbicide lifts from a targeted plants hours or days after spraying and moves as a vapor to susceptible crops -- had a major role in this year's problems. The company instead attributed problems to farmers not following a 4,000-word label detailing how it should be used.

Yields this harvest might set records, Monsanto also has said, citing preliminary reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We finally found a product that will help control pig weeds and now because of some careless farmers the hope of a new product that works is being jeopardized," wrote Timothy Jones, a farmer in Elaine, in Phillips County.

"We believe your decision is based on sound science from excellent weed scientists, and the sheer volume of complaints screams for limits," countered Jody Nail, a farmer in Biscoe. "Farmers in east Prairie county controlled pigweed better this year than in the past and did it without dicamba."

Business on 11/08/2017