Arkansas bans dicamba herbicide, lawsuits possible

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 362 views 

Farmers may no longer use the herbicide dicamba following a decision Friday (July 7) by the Arkansas Legislative Council Executive Subcommittee to take no action on a ban implemented by the Arkansas State Plant Board and upheld by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The ALC could opt to review the ban and overturn it if 51% of its members decide to, State Senate President Jonathon Dismang told Talk Business & Politics.

Members who want to take that course of action have a 24-hour window that starts on Monday, meaning if nothing changes the ban starts at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. The ban of the sale and use of a chemical during the middle of a growing season is unprecedented in state history.

Dismang said he doesn’t expect the ALC to act, and the 120-day ban will take effect.

The ban comes after the ASPB approved the use of one type of the chemical, Engenia dicamba, in  December. Almost 600 complaints have been filed since mid-May from farmers claiming the chemical has infiltrated their crops, primarily causing soybean damage.

None of the complaints have been fully vetted, and only nine are in the review process, ASPB Director Terry Walker admitted during an agriculture committee hearing held prior to the vote. Despite the lack of a full inquiry, committee members decided they couldn’t respond because there was no evidence the ASPB erred when it made its decision.

“We don’t know the issue is actually dicamba … until those issues are vetted we can’t say with certainty what the issues are with dicamba,” Dismang said.

Farmers and advocates from both sides of the issue made impassioned pleas at the morning hearing. Dr. Ford Baldwin, a weed specialist, said physical drift is what is spreading the chemical from dicamba tolerant fields, laced with scientifically altered seeds, to fields with plants that can be damaged by the treatment. Millions of dollars of damage are likely being caused, and the main swath of damage seems to be in Northeast Arkansas, parts of southern Missouri, and Northwest Tennessee. Northeast Arkansas’ diverse hodgepodge of cotton, soybean, corn, peanut, and other row crops in is close proximity to one another making it difficult to use a chemical as volatile as dicamba without causing problems for other farmers.

“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life … this is the biggest train wreck agriculture has ever seen,” Baldwin said.

Dr. Dan Westberg, a weed control expert for BASF, the company that makes dicamba, had a different take. He thinks improper application practices are in-part to blame for the drift. Applications shouldn’t be done at night and the appropriate nozzles need to be used, he said. Application device height can also be a factor in whether drift occurs. Dicamba could be moved by dust particles, but he hasn’t seen enough data to prove it, he said. There could be some “unique” environmental factor in the affected region that scientists have yet to uncover, he said.

Westberg admitted there was a problem developing in the row crop fields in Northeast Arkansas and in eastern Arkansas, but he thinks a thorough scientific investigation should be done before any bans are instituted.

“It’s premature to conclude that it is the fault of the product,” he said to audible groans in the audience.

Baldwin and Westberg admitted pigweed is a serious problem for Arkansas farmers, and dicamba was a chemical that seems to stop the weed in fields. Pigweed strains in Arkansas have developed unusual tolerances to treatments and have been a problem for decades.

Another contributor could be the mix of old dicamba formulas with the approved product, lawmakers postulated. Farmers might be mixing new and old chemicals and it would be difficult to trace, Westberg said.

Farmers from both sides told members why the legislature should or should not recommend upholding the ban. One farmer said dicamba tolerant seeds will be available to about 80% of Arkansas farmers next year and more than a million soybean acres were planted this year with those types of seeds. This is the time of year farmers are planning for next year and many will have dicamba tolerant soybeans, but won’t be able to use the herbicide that goes along with it. A ban could throw the whole soybean industry in the state into turmoil, he said. Many farmers touted its ability to curtail pigweed growth.

Karen Hawkins, the sister of Mike Wallace, made an impassioned plea to members to stop dicamba’s use. Her brother and Leachville-area farmer Mike Wallace was killed during a dispute with another farmer, Allan Curtis Jones, last year. Jones had been using dicamba on fields and when Wallace confronted him, Jones allegedly shot and killed him, according to the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Department. Hawkins said the loss of her brother coupled with the drift damage they’ve experienced on their farm this year leads her to believe the chemical should be banned.

“My brother begged for help and protection for his crops … he is now dead. Please stop this,” she said.

When inquiries into complaints will be vetted is uncertain, and the ban may have little effect,  lawmakers and experts admitted. Most weed control applications have already been done and the only places where it might still be used is on flood-ravaged fields in Northeast Arkansas that were planted late. Damage estimates could be in the millions, but farmers won’t know until crops are harvested.

It’s almost certain lawsuits will be filed in the case. A Talk Business & Politics reporter talked with several people in the crowd during the hearing and multiple law firms sent representatives to conduct research at the hearing.

Also late Friday (July 7), the state of Missouri’s agriculture department issued a “stop sale, use or removal” order on all dicamba products. At least 130 complaints had been received by Missouri officials related to the product.

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