Bob Griffin was rolling down Highway 49’s carpet of farmland when he saw the damage. Nothing in particular caught his eye, but the initial suspicion compelled him to pull onto a turnrow splitting 100 acres of soybeans outside of Marvell, Ark. Something was just off about the crop. He walked into R3 soybeans, already podded up, and saw cobra-headed damage on leaves tapering across the field. Griffin’s consultant instinct was inescapable: telltale signs of dicamba drift.
In a farming age where the grip of Palmer amaranth intensifies and expands each season, dicamba controversy is exploding beyond fields of Monsanto’s Xtend soybeans in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. Yield loss is merely the bottom rung of concern. Growers fear repercussions could cut off access to desperately needed dicamba-related technology.
Producer Curtis Storey didn’t panic when Griffin brought the dicamba news. Storey sought out a neighboring farmer growing Xtend soybeans and was assured the damage was a one-off. But Griffin’s initial 100-acre report was only the beginning. A week later, 85 additional acres of damage was discovered. Then, tack on 48 more acres. Then 62; 115; 50; 35. Today, almost 500 acres of Storey’s land is affected in varying degrees by dicamba damage, with no guarantee the numbers won’t climb higher.
Storey farms 4,800 acres in Phillips County, Ark., and points to a massive gap between typical drift-related issues and off-label dicamba applications.
“This was illegal spraying and something entirely different. It was also done in repeated applications over time,” he explains. “No farmer, and I mean not a single one, can plead ignorance. Everyone knows not to use dicamba over the top. I’m paying the costs for someone else’s pigweed control.”
When Monsanto debuted Xtend soybean technology in 2016, seed sales were accompanied with concise and clear warnings: Do not apply dicamba yet. Xtend crops are designed to withstand dicamba, but with no label approval for a new formulation, the herbicide tolerance is technically academic. However, a quick look at eastern Arkansas soybean fields suggests "technicality" is trumped by human nature. Placing a pigweed weapon just beyond the legal reach of producers has proved too tempting for some.
“In-crop use of dicamba is still in review by the EPA. The EPA has indicated review will be completed by late summer or fall,” says Kyel Richard, product communications lead with Monsanto. Monsanto has developed low-volatility dicamba formulations containing VaporGrip Technology to help limit the chances of off-target movement, he adds. “Dicamba will be an important part of The Roundup Ready PLUS Crop Management Solutions platform, but until approved, it’s against the law to use dicamba in-crop with Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans or Bollgard ll XtendFlex cotton.”
“I already know of five farmers affected by dicamba drift just in Phillips County, but we’re talking about a great deal of acreage across parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. It’s like a dicamba bomb going off,” says Griffin. “Some farmers have blatantly done what they want to do. They think they won’t get caught, but they don’t understand the power of dicamba.”
Whether via physical drift or the vapor of volatilization, soybeans are extremely sensitive to dicamba. “All it takes is about one-and-a-half hundredths of an ounce per acre is to get damage and symptomatology,” Griffin notes.
Growers sometimes inadvertently load the dicamba gun aimed at their own crops. In 2016, one of Griffin’s farmer clients used a mini-bulk container containing Dicamba residue to spray Prefix herbicide across a soybean field after emergence. No drift or volatility was required to hammer 1,000 acres of soybeans.
Robert Goodson, Phillips County Extension row crops agent with the University of Arkansas, echoes Griffin’s concerns on dicamba potency.
“Just three one-hundredths of an ounce can result in a 30% to 40% yield loss," he says. "Even an incredibly low rate can cause major yield loss at the right stage of production.”
And what will be the overall effect on Storey’s fields? Dicamba’s hormonal chemistry causes tissue to elongate as plants essentially grow themselves to death. Affected leaves take the cupped appearance of a hooded snake head. Soybean growth stage (maximum susceptibility occurs during R1) and dicamba concentration are critical to tallying damage, but Griffin can only estimate probable yield loss.
“I think the bare minimum will be 10%, but that’s absolute minimum," he says. "It could be far worse at harvest.”
Far worse, indeed. Storey finds himself staring into yield darkness, uncertain about percent damage and even unsure if his affected soybeans will remain below 500 acres. University specialists and industry experts have pegged potential losses in parts of his fields at 50%.
“Money cleaned out of my pocket and pigweed cleaned out of someone’s field,” he says.
As the affected acreage mounted, Storey found himself with few options and contacted the Arkansas State Plant Board.
“I’ve never been involved with class actions suits or any of that mess," he says. "I didn’t want to do this, but my hand was forced. Even Monsanto told me to report it to the Plant Board.”
And the Plant Board? The maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine; a veritable slap on the wrist. However the Plant Board has formed a civil penalty study group to consider raising the maximum fine. Susie Nichols, agri division manager for the Plant Board, says the organization has received 24 complaints in 2016 regarding dicamba drift in soybeans, peanuts and watermelons: “These cases are still under investigation so I cannot yet confirm dicamba.”
Storey takes no solace in small penalties.
“$1,000 fine? Sure, that’ll stop them,” he says with heavy dismay. “I’ve had people tell me to keep quiet or we may lose the technology. That’s false reasoning to blame me since I’m not the one breaking the law. Multiple people have continued making dicamba applications over the top. This is going on in other counties and states. Everybody knows it.”
“We’ve got 230,000 acres of soybeans in Phillips County, but there’s nothing unique about our situation,” adds Goodson. “This is no anomaly and we all know it’s happening in lots of places.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is conducting investigations into 100-plus dicamba-related complaints in 2016 spread across four southeast counties.
“This is well above the average of 75 general complaints that we typically see statewide,” says Sarah Alsager, public information officer.
Scotty Frasier, a salesman with Famers Supply in Marvell, says the ripple effect could reach beyond affected fields.
“We’re all wondering what the ramifications will be, but one thing is for sure, the noise is getting louder,” he says.
The stakes are extremely high as the 2016 growing season unfolds: dicamba soybean purchases at local grain elevators, international market questions, the prospect of a further tightening of the regulatory noose, or even the loss of dicamba technology. Storey says anyone who claims his concerns are overblown is ignorant of the grain chain: “My ultimate question is the foreign market. The granary will handle my beans mixed with my neighbor’s dicamba beans?”
Storey’s question hangs in the air and requires a great deal of navel gazing. Why? Nobody knows what may crawl out of Pandora’s grain box. When Monsanto released Xtend technology, growers were given explicit instructions on the illegality of dicamba applications. However, the company also released a technology knowing chemicals were only a shelf away. Simple human nature: A small percentage of growers will cheat and other growers will pay the price. Dangle a pigweed killer in front of farmers, and someone will use it, regardless of legality.
“Chemical companies should not put folks on the honor system,” Storey says. “Did Monsanto really believe all farmers would be honest? It’s tough for me to believe they didn’t see this abuse coming.”