Following months of consideration, the Arkansas Plant Board has voted to loosen its ban on the controversial herbicide dicamba.
In an eight-hour meeting Wednesday, the board voted to move the cutoff date for spraying the herbicide from April 15 to May 25. A group of farmers had been seeking to push the date back to as late as June 15, but at the outset of Wednesday's meeting board members had been considering May 20 as a compromise.
The board reached the May 25 date after a series of failed motions with varying cutoff dates and rules for protecting certified organic and non-dicamba tolerant crops. Board member Terry Fuller sought to impose a one-mile buffer around fields of dicamba-treated cotton and soybeans, while fellow board member Marty Eaton said the work needed to comply with that restriction would amount to essentially banning the chemical outright.
The regulations finalized at the Wednesday meeting impose a half-mile buffer zone around non-dicamba crops, and a one mile buffer around research stations, certified organic and specialty crops. Farmers additionally must complete training from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service before spraying dicamba and must keep records available for inspectors if they choose to spray between April 15 and the new May cutoff.
For much of the meeting, members of the public commented on the proposed rule change. While some spoke in favor of the later spraying cutoff, the majority spoke in opposition. Kate Althoff of Little Rock said no amount of damage caused by dicamba is acceptable.
"You've heard… over and over from organic farmers to small farmers, all suffering," Althoff said. "So the question is the dicamba farmer, his American dream, is it greater or more important than the American dream of the others?"
Dicamba is used to kill Palmer amaranth, commonly known as pigweed, in fields of genetically modified cotton and soybean crops. The state originally banned spraying the chemical from April 15 to October 31 after receiving thousands of complaints of crop damage.
Representatives for chemical companies BASF and Bayer U.S. which manufacture dicamba didn't explicitly mention the complaints of crop damage that caused the state to ban the herbicide's use in 2017. Scott Partridge, general counsel and senior vice president at Bayer U.S., said total acreage of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton in the country doubled from 2017 to 2018.
"And at the same time as acres have doubled, the number of inquiries about off-target movement has decreased 87 percent," Partridge said. "It's the most rapid rate of adoption of any technology in agricultural history. And it is so because the technology is so valuable to growers."
Weed scientist Jason Norsworthy of the University of Arkansas said mixing dicamba with other chemicals while spraying can cause it to volatilize, or become vapor, and be carried by the wind onto non-resistant plants.
"Do the results in this and other trials where volatility occurred help to explain the 3.6 million acres of soybean that was damaged in 2017, or is… the extent of damage across the U.S. considered just an outlier because we previously have never seen injury of this magnitude across the U.S. landscape?"
The board originally considered moving the spraying cutoff date to June 15 after a petition from a group of farmers headed by grower Franklin Fogleman of Marion. At the Wednesday meeting, Fogleman said a May cutoff would not give farmers enough time to legally spray dicamba.
"There is a lot of fairness in this world, but it is not evenly distributed. Sadly, in our current circumstances, these words provide a far too accurate image for many farmers in our state who work valiantly to overcome a slate of daunting challenges brought on by an endless deluge of problems and unrewarded by a policy that appears to have little or no regard for the difficulty or importance of the row crop farmer's task to our state," Fogleman said.
While Bayer and BASF officials argued Arkansas shouldn't be the only state where dicamba is regulated beyond what the label approved by the Environmental Protection Agency mandates, cotton and soybean grower David Wildy of Manila said that’s not a distinction to be ashamed of.
"Proponents argue that Arkansas is the only state with these stringent regulations. Yes, maybe we are the only one. But Arkansas is our state, and we're concerned about our state, not what other states are doing," Wildy said. "With contiguous row crops for hundreds of miles and [the] unique climate and landscape of the Delta region, maybe we are somewhat different."
While the board's action ends the discussion over Arkansas's dicamba regulations for now, two lawsuits against companies manufacturing the chemical are ongoing. The new rules governing dicamba use in the state now go to the legislature for approval.