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Crops newly hurt by dicamba

Complaints filed about herbicide by Stephen Steed | June 9, 2017 at 2:03 a.m.

Farmers' soybeans and cotton are again being damaged by off-target movement of dicamba, the state Plant Board was told Thursday.

It is a reprise of last summer, when the illegal application of the herbicide damaged thousands of acres of soybeans, cotton, ornamental trees and fruits and vegetables.

Investigators with the Plant Board, a division of the state Department of Agriculture, are working seven days a week, looking into the complaints, said Susie Nichols, director of the board's pesticide division.

Twenty-five formal complaints have been filed, mostly by farmers in Monroe and Mississippi counties, but the board has received hundreds of complaints by telephone, she said. Plant Board investigators last summer confirmed 23 cases of dicamba damage.

It's too early to say how many acres have been affected or what specific formulations of the readily available herbicide were used, she said.

One of those farmers already reporting damage to soybeans was Danny Finch of Jonesboro, a Plant Board member representing cotton farmers.

Finch told his colleagues on the board that, so far, he has found damage on a 40-acre tract of soybeans. His soybeans also were damaged last year, he said.

"The good fields averaged 70 bushels an acre," Finch said. Fields hit by dicamba averaged 42 bushels an acre during harvest. "At $10 a bushel, you do the math," he said.

A neighboring farmer sprayed BASF's Engenia -- the only dicamba registered in Arkansas for in-crop use -- on May 18. There were no signs of drift -- or damage -- to Finch's crops until Thursday morning, Finch said.

The problems will only get worse as the summer wears on, Finch said. "I don't think there will be enough phones in this building" to handle complaints, he said.

The farmer abided by federal and state requirements for spraying Engenia, including restrictions on the size of spray nozzles, the height of spray booms, and wind speed and direction, Finch said. "He did everything by the book," he said.

All signs, he said, indicate that the herbicide, during a climate process called inversion, lifted itself off the targeted soybean plants and traveled in warm, humid air to his nearby field.

Engenia, according to BASF, is less susceptible to inversion and wind drift than older, less expensive formulations of dicamba.

Monsanto, the seed and chemical giant in St. Louis, spent years and millions of dollars developing new soybean and cotton traits that would be tolerant of dicamba, a readily available and relatively inexpensive weedkiller used for decades around the home and farm. However, the company began selling the seeds before winning approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for its new dicamba-based herbicide, called Xtendimax with Vapor Grip.

Arkansas farmers last year planted a few hundred thousand acres of the dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton -- all in the hope that they wouldn't face a battle against pigweed, an invasive species that has grown resistant to most herbicides, including Monsanto's Roundup, a glyphosate.

When farmers who planted the new Xtend crops found themselves facing an onslaught of pigweed, they had two options. They could disk up their crops. Or, they could illegally spray existing, more volatile formulations of dicamba -- and put at risk their neighbors' crops that weren't dicamba tolerant.

Monsanto's dicamba herbicide still hasn't been approved for use in Arkansas, leaving Engenia as the only herbicide that can be legally used on crops once plants emerge from the ground.

"This is the most frustrating thing I've seen in my 43 years of being a weed scientist," Ford Baldwin of Austin (Lonoke County), a consultant and former weed scientist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

The apparent drift and inversion problems with Engenia are more signs that farmers will be forced into an "all or nothing technology" -- either plant all crops with the dicamba-tolerant traits, or no crops that are dicamba tolerant.

Baldwin said he spent most of this week inspecting northeast Arkansas crops. "I don't have a single non-Xtend field that hasn't been hit," he said.

John Schultz, a representative of BASF, told Plant Board members that the company will work with farmers in looking at potential problems with the new herbicide. Schultz said he has seen "significant" damage in Phillips and Monroe counties. He said, as of now, the company has no plans to compensate farmers for losses.

The Plant Board this year began requiring anyone who physically applies legal formulations of dicamba -- farmers, farmhands or agriculture pilots -- to complete an online training and certification course. More than 1,000 people have taken the course.

The Plant Board also will soon have the authority levy fines of up to $25,000 for "egregious" violations of laws restricting dicamba spraying. The current fine is $1,000. Lawmakers approved the higher fines earlier this year, but the law didn't have an emergency clause. It's now scheduled to take effect Aug. 1, but it can't be applied retroactively.

Business on 06/09/2017

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