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Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday approved a 120-day emergency ban on the sale and use of a herbicide suspected of damaging hundreds of thousands of acres of soybeans and other crops.

In a letter Friday afternoon to the state Plant Board, a division of the state Agriculture Department, and Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, Hutchinson said he didn't agree entirely with the recommendation, which was approved 9-5 by the board on June 23.

"I am concerned that more limited options were not fully debated and considered because of the need for quick action," he wrote. "I know the Plant Board also shares my concern that this action is being taken in the middle of a growing season, but the volume of complaints do justify emergency action."

As of Friday morning, the board had received 507 complaints of suspected dicamba damage in 21 counties. Mississippi County had the most, with 135. Crittenden County had 74 complaints; Craighead County had 61.

Hutchinson also approved a way for the Plant Board to expedite its role in implementing stiffer fines for "egregious" violations of Arkansas regulations for spraying dicamba. The increase in fines -- from the current maximum of $1,000 to as much as $25,000 -- will take effect Aug. 1.

The proposed ban now goes for review to the eight-member executive subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council. The subcommittee will take up the matter at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, its co-chairmen, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall, said Friday.

After the committee reviews the measure, the Plant Board will file it with with the secretary of state's office, putting it into effect immediately. The subcommittee's approval isn't required for the ban to take effect.

Of fields inspected by Plant Board investigators, damage caused by dicamba has been confirmed on about 90 percent, Susie Nichols, a Plant Board official, told members of the board's pesticide subcommittee Friday morning. The subcommittee is meeting every Friday through July 21 on dicamba issues.

The number of complaints in neighboring states also is growing. Missouri had 100 and Mississippi had 48 as of Friday morning, Nichols said.

Arkansas is the only state seeking to enact such a ban.

Farmers who reported damage in early June, when they were early into their spraying schedules, are now reporting that the same fields are getting hit for a second and third time as plants move closer into their reproductive stage. While plants in vegetative stages can grow out of the damage, those in reproductive stages will see higher yield losses at harvest time, weed scientists for the state have said.

Of some 3.3 million acres of soybeans planted in Arkansas this year, about 1.5 million acres are of Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant Xtend beans, the company said last week in denouncing the Plant Board's proposed ban.

Larry Jayroe, a Plant Board member from Forrest City, cited figures developed earlier this week by Ford Baldwin, a weed consultant in Austin in Lonoke County.

If 1 million acres of non-dicamba beans sustain average yield losses of 25 percent and at a market price of $10 a bushel, the loss to farmers will be $250 million, he said. A 20 percent cut in per-acre yield will cost farmers $200 million, he said. With farmers facing a third straight year of decreased income and lower market prices, "this could put a bunch of farmers out of business," Jayroe said.

Danny Finch, a board member from Jonesboro, said financial costs this year could be worse than those caused by the 1980 drought. It took farmers 10 years to recover from the loss of crops and the devaluation of farmland.

Crop damage and yield losses, Finch said, will hurt "widow women" and others who lease small plots of land to farmers. "They're not going to be happy with the lower rent checks," he said.

With Monsanto's dicamba still being studied by state weed scientists for any tendencies to drift off target and prohibited for now in Arkansas, the only dicamba herbicide allowed in the state for in-crop use this year is BASF's Engenia.

Plant Board inspectors are still trying to determine whether damage is being caused by off-target movement of Engenia, by the spraying of illegal formulations of dicamba, or a combination of the two.

Hutchinson said he was sending the matter to the Legislative Council's executive subcommittee because he considers the Plant Board "to have a significant expertise in agriculture and crop science" and gives "great deference to its findings and conclusions."

Hutchinson on Friday also instructed the Plant Board and state Agriculture Department to create a task force to review and investigate the dicamba technology and develop a long-term solution. "This debate will continue into future planting seasons, and Arkansas needs a long-term solution," he wrote.

Terry Walker, the Plant Board's director, told members of the pesticide committee that several factors are hampering efforts to determine how many acres of soybeans have been damaged.

One factor, he said, is that some farmers with crop damage are keeping the matter private, preferring instead to work out any problems with a neighbor and not file a formal complaint with the Plant Board.

Agents with the county agriculture extension offices also may be reluctant to share estimates of damage because they don't want to harm their relationships with farmer-clients, Walker said. Agriculture lenders also are leery of sharing information about specific crops and acreage because of possible lawsuits, he said.

While the state board wrestles with ongoing complaints about crop damage caused by a herbicide, its members must begin addressing dicamba-related issues that will affect next year's crops, Walker said.

Farmers will complete their plans for the 2018 planting season and sign commodity contracts in October, leaving the Plant Board little time to find solutions to problems arising from hundreds of complaints about damage to soybeans and other crops, Walker said.

With the emergency ban good for only 120 days, the Plant Board will have to decide whether to implement a longer-standing ban, to extend it to other herbicides, or to allow more dicamba-based herbicides into the Arkansas market, Walker said.

Such decisions by the board will have a significant impact on farmers' decisions on what to plant and on how many acres, he said.

A Section on 07/01/2017

Print Headline: Governor approves dicamba prohibition

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