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Arkansas Plant Board Committee Recommends Ban On Herbicide

Chris Hickey / KUAR News

A maligned but crucial row crop herbicide that’s led to disputes among neighbors and at least one class action lawsuit could be on its way toward becoming banned in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Plant Board Pesticide Committee voted Friday to recommend a ban on the sale and use of dicamba for the state’s row crops. Farmers spray dicamba on a specific genetically resistant soybean variety, produced by Monsanto. Misuse and wind drift in recent months has led to the herbicide impacting fields and damaging non-genetically resistant agricultural crops in the eastern part of the state.

The committee’s voice vote was unanimous.

“I hate that it’s come to this, but we have to do our jobs,” said committee member Dennie Stokes, a representative from the Arkansas Agricultural Aviation Association and operator of the Stokes Flying Service, a crop dusting company.

“It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of deal,” said Marty Eaton, another committee member and the general manager of a seed supply company based in Cash, Arkansas.

“I don’t know where we’re headed with this, but I don’t see any way to make it work. It’s just a problem that no one can solve,” said Danny Finch, a cotton and soybean farmer from Craighead County.  

Finch made the motion for the committee to recommend a ban on the sale and use of dicamba in Arkansas, except for use on pasture land. He said he was following the direction of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who in a Wednesday press conference said it was up to the Plant Board to resolve the dicamba issue.

As of Friday afternoon, at least 87 complaints about potential dicamba misuse had been filed with the Arkansas Plant Board this year, far more than double the number of complaints filed last year. Complaints have come from farmers and landowners in 14 counties. Many complaints originate in northeast Arkansas. It is the Plant Board’s responsibility to review the complaints and determine whether any regulations were violated.  Border states like Tennessee and Missouri have also seen a rise in dicamba-related complaints, a Plant Board staff member said.

Farmers have turned to dicamba with the increasing threat of pigweed, which has recently developed resistance to Roundup, an herbicide commonly used on farms and gardens. Row crop farmers once typically sprayed Roundup on their fields of genetically resistant strains of soybeans, sorghum, corn, wheat and cotton to eliminate any weeds. The “Roundup Ready” crop varieties are sold by the agri-business Monsanto. The company now also sells dicamba-resistant soybean seeds, under the trade-name “Xtend.”

Although, many soybean farmers in the state have begun to plant the dicamba-tolerant soybeans, there are plenty who haven’t; and there are plenty more who plant other non-resistant crops like cotton, peanuts, peas and berries. In unpredictable winds, dicamba sprayed on a field of genetically-resistant soybeans can drift to a neighboring field that isn’t genetically resistant, and those crops suffer.                                      

Instances of contamination and crop damage have caused consternation in the state’s farming community. Landowners have complained about their neighbors’ practices, leading to disputes. Last year, one of those disputes turned deadly.

A state-wide ban on dicamba would still need approval from the full Arkansas Plant Board in order to take effect. The Plant Board is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting at 1:30pm Tuesday at its Little Rock headquarters. The new regulation would also require approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council and the governor.

The only form of dicamba now legally allowed in Arkansas is sold by BASF under the trade name “Engenia.”

This week, several Arkansas farmers filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Monsanto and BASF. They’re seeking compensation for damage to row crops, as well as fruit trees and other non-resistant plants that have been impacted.

Even with a compensatory remedy possible in federal court, agronomists and researchers in Arkansas are still puzzled over how to solve the problems of dicamba contamination.

“It’s certainly a very difficult situation, a very complex situation. When you’re talking to PhD’s and asking them their thoughts and recommendations and they say ‘I don’t have a good answer,’ you know it’s complicated. You know it’s complex,” said Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward at the Friday committee meeting.

“We’ve got guys out there that need the technologies and have flat out told us, ‘if I don’t have these new technologies, I can’t do anything in the field, I’ve got to let it go.”

Ward said a new law enacted by the 2017 Arkansas General Assembly imposing stricter fines on farmers who use dicamba improperly won’t go into effect until August.

In response to the high number of complaints and concerns arising out of possible dicamba misuse, the Arkansas Agriculture Department launched a website giving an overview of complaints, answering general questions and providing updates. 

This post was edited on 6/18/17.

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