On the eve of a major decision by the state over the controversial weed killer dicamba, tensions are running high in Arkansas’s farming communities.
“This is probably the most divisive the agricultural community has ever been,” said Shawn Peebles, an organic farmer in Augusta.
Peebles said he hasn’t personally sustained damage from dicamba drift but he is experiencing issues with companies no longer wanting to do business with Arkansas growers due to concerns about residue from the weed killer.
Those who favor a ban on dicamba have claimed that the herbicide is too volatile and travels through the air to crops that are not resistant, causing crop injury and substantial financial harm.
The controversy has been linked to arguments, lawsuits, broken friendships — even a murder last year.
The state plant board is due to open a public hearing Wednesday at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock. By the end of the day, the board may vote on whether to accept a task force recommendation for an April 15 cutoff date for farm applications of dicamba.
According to agriculture department spokesperson Adriane Barnes, there’s also a chance that the hearing will extend into a second day, depending on the number of people who wish to speak on the subject. She said each person will be allowed a minimum of three minutes to speak, and the maximum will depend on how many people wish to speak.
The weed killer has its defenders who say that dicamba is the best technology they have ever seen for controlling the notoriously invasive pigweed.
“When we were able to spray with dicamba, our farms looked like gardens,” said Michael McCarty, a farmer in Osceola.
Osceola is in Mississippi County, which Gov. Hutchinson has referred to as ground zero for the controversy over dicamba.
McCarty said farmers who favor dicamba are not looking to harm other farmers.
"We've never been in the business to do that," he said.
He has helped with a petition drive signed by some 350 farmers urging the state plant board not to accept the recommendation for the April 15th cutoff date. Around Mississippi County, signs reading “Farmers Need Dicamba” are frequently seen along the highways.
Monsanto, the Saint Louis-based company that makes the product, plans to send executives to the plant board meeting to offer evidence that dicamba does not harm other crops when applied properly.
Scott Partridge, a vice president at the company, said despite predictions of extensive harm to this fall’s soybean harvest, he says estimates indicate that Arkansas is on track to register a record-setting soybean harvest this year.
Partridge said he and other Monsanto executives will attend Wednesday’s hearing to answer any questions the plant board may have about dicamba.
“We have many growers asking us to appear and help them gain access to this tool, so yes, we will be there,” he said.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.