Dicamba ban decision not ‘a given,’ legislators say

by George Jared ([email protected]) 791 views 

The Arkansas State Plant Board and Gov. Asa Hutchinson have decided that dicamba, a substance used to fight pigweed in cotton crops, has damaged thousands of acres of soybean crops and its sale and use should be banned.

State Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, thinks there is a possibility the Arkansas Legislative Council Executive Subcommittee will opt to defy the board and governor Friday and not institute the ban, he told Talk Business & Politics. For the ban to go into effect, the subcommittee has to approve the measure.

“I don’t think it’s a given … this is a timing issue,” he said. “We feel like this is going to impact thousands of Arkansans … I think this whole thing has been mismanaged from the beginning.”

Hendren isn’t necessarily against a ban, but he doesn’t think enough research has been conducted to know what the true impacts are from dicamba. The ASPB reported that it received 551 damage complaints from farmers related to the chemical since mid-May, Director Terry Walker told Talk Business & Politics. The agency normally receives up to 300 total complaints statewide each year, he said. The state approved the use of only one kind of dicamba, Eugenia, last year.

“This is unprecedented … this is a record as far as generating complaints about misuse,” Walker said.

The damage complaints could be legitimate, but little information has been released by the Board, and fundamental questions remain unanswered, Hendren said. None of the complaints have been completely assessed. The penalty for a misapplication was recently raised from $1,000 to $25,000, but it’s something that should have been done before the growing season started, and farmers using dicamba needed to know on the front end how serious a problem this could erupt into, Hendren said.

The senator also doesn’t understand why it has to be a statewide ban when there are counties that have reported no damage from dicamba drift. Farmers have borrowed and spent a lot of money on input costs, and many are following the rules as they are written and should not be penalized because they simply followed the rules, he said. Application restrictions might solve the problem instead of an outright ban. Hendren said the process has been hasty and more time needs to be devoted to studying the problem. A finite number of impacted acres hasn’t even been determined, he said.

“If it’s such a problem, why aren’t other states banning it?” he said.

Complaints this year cover 19 counties: Ashley, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Greene, Jackson, Jefferson, Lee, Little River, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett, St. Francis, White and Woodruff. Counties in Northeast Arkansas, especially Mississippi County have had the most complaints.

Unusually rainy and windy conditions this year could have negatively impacted dicamba drift in northeastern and eastern Arkansas row crop fields, but there could be other factors. Some farmers might be using old dicamba or products not approved for use. Application methods and protocols might not have been followed.

Researchers say physical drift accounts for at least 80-90% of all the dicamba injured fields that have been observed. About 10-20% of the injury has occurred even when everything appears to have been done correctly. One possibility under review is that dicamba droplets are attaching to dust particles after applications are made. There is growing evidence in the fields that points toward dicamba moving with dust.

Walker admitted that inspectors have only examined about 200 of the complaints and no written reports are completed. Soybeans are susceptible to damage from dicamba. Discoloration, foliage cupping, and strapping are signs of exposure. Exposed plants will produce lower yields, and possibly tainted replant seeds, Walker said. Inspectors have found these symptoms in many of the complaints filed.

There are a number of factors that could explain why Arkansas has more problems with this chemical than other states. The state has an earlier planting season than other states, which means if a pesticide or other planting issue surfaces, it will likely happen in the Natural State first, he said. Another factor is inter-cropping. In Arkansas, and especially in the northeastern quadrant of the state, inter-cropping is common. Cotton, soybean, corn, and other row crop fields are intermingled across the landscape. In other states, crops are grown in uniform sections.

For at least five years, farmers and state officials have been hopeful dicamba could solve one of the state’s vexing problems. Pigweed is more pesticide-resistant in the state than in the Midwest or West, Walker said. Cotton farmers need tools to combat this problem, he admitted. But if it’s going to significantly damage other crops, it has to be dealt with, he said.

Arkansas Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, told Talk Business & Politics he has “grave concerns” about the process that led to the emergency ruling by the Plant Board. Many basic questions were left unanswered or the responses by the Plant Board have been ambiguous at best, he said. The lack of research into if and how the chemical spread to other fields is troubling, he said.

“I’m not sure how I’ll vote … there are several unanswered questions here,” he said.

Gillam said he is “flabbergasted” that dicamba was approved for use without more research or a longer vetting period. He contends the board hasn’t vetted what the legal liabilities to the state will be if the chemical is banned, he said.

There are some who think he opposes the ban, but he wants more information before he makes his decision, he said.

Gillam made a motion Wednesday to recess until members of the Joint Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee could meet Friday to hear testimony on both sides, and then make a recommendation to the executive subcommittee. He hopes many of those questions will be answered at that meeting.

Sen. Hendren said telling farmers in mid-season that their investments and the rules will be completely upended when the research hasn’t been completed isn’t fair or right. Alternatives such as more restrictive application processes should be vetted first and the ban shouldn’t apply to counties with no complaints.

“We could lose farmers over this,” said Hendren.

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