Arkansas task force recommends April 15 dicamba cutoff

MORRILTON -- The in-crop use of the dicamba herbicide should be allowed in Arkansas but with severe restrictions next year on when it can be sprayed, a task force recommended Thursday.

The recommendation now goes to the state Plant Board and the governor, and possibly to lawmakers if there are proposed changes to state law.

The task force recommended an April 15 cutoff date for the spraying of dicamba in-crop, which is after the plants emerge from the soil. Most crops in Arkansas aren't planted until May, so the April 15 cutoff essentially defeats the purpose of using BASF's Engenia, the only dicamba herbicide allowed in Arkansas for in-crop use this year.

On July 11, the state implemented an emergency 120-day ban on the sale and use of all dicamba, including the Engenia product.

The ban was prompted by an avalanche of complaints about damage to thousands of acres of soybeans and other vegetables and vegetation susceptible to the herbicide.

As of Wednesday, the state had received 950 such complaints -- compared with about two dozen last year.

No formal vote of the task force was taken.

Being an informal body, the task force didn't operate under normal parliamentary procedures that other panels do.

Instead, during Thursday's meeting -- and the task force's inaugural meeting on Aug. 17 -- members were urged by mediators with the Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas System to reach a consensus of at least 75 percent. It was a threshold not met.

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By 5 p.m., eight members were steadfast in favoring the April 15 cutoff.

Five sought a May 15 cutoff, which would have allowed farmers a small window for using a dicamba herbicide over the top of their dicamba-tolerant crops.

Five were adamantly against the April 15 cutoff and couldn't be budged. One said he was against any cutoff date.

David Wildy, a Manila farmer on the task force, pushed hard for the April 15 cutoff throughout the day. He said the agriculture community is giving itself a "black eye" by using a product that is harming trees and gardens well away from crops and fields.

Rhetorically, he challenged BASF and Monsanto, saying he'd drop the April 15 cutoff date if the companies would agree to compensate him for yield losses.

Several members of the task force seemed unswayed by an hourlong presentation by Monsanto representatives and a half-hour presentation by BASF officials.

Monsanto developed dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton as a way to fight weeds, particularly pigweed in Arkansas, that have developed a resistance to other herbicides, including its Roundup, a glyphosate.

Ty Witten, a Monsanto representative, acknowledged that dicamba can move off-target but said the problems in Arkansas and in other states were caused primarily by applicator errors -- such as using incorrect spray nozzles, disregarding buffer zones or wind speeds, and failing to properly clean tanks and spraying equipment.

He downplayed the "volatilization" of the product -- or its ability to transform into a vapor or liquid form hours after application, and move miles away and damage susceptible crops and other vegetation.

Weed scientists with the University of Arkansas' Agriculture Division have said volatilization, not simple physical drift, has caused most of the problems in Arkansas.

Neither representatives for BASF nor Monsanto on Thursday directly challenged the weed scientists or the result of large-scale field tests this summer of the herbicides.

David Hundley, manager of grain buying for Ozark Mountain Poultry's operations in northeast Arkansas, said he was "struggling with the insinuation that farmers in northeast Arkansas don't know how to spray."

Jeff Birk, BASF's regulatory manager, said the company knows dicamba very well. BASF created the original formulation in 1958.

He said the company has long acknowledged certain problems with the herbicide, even its tendency to drift off-target.

Engenia is a better product than older dicamba formulations, he said, and off-target movement "can be managed and controlled."

A ban on the product in Arkansas, he said, would have farmers using older, more volatile dicamba products that are illegal for in-crop use.

That would be a repeat of last year, when Monsanto released dicamba-tolerant soybeans before the federal Environmental Protection Agency had approved any of the three dicamba herbicide products now on the market. Farmers who planted Monsanto's Xtend seeds had no legal herbicide to spray.

Wildy said if the herbicide is used again, and the state sees the same problems, the EPA will take away the technology.

"People think I am against the technology," he said. "I am not. But I won't use a product that I can't keep from hurting my neighbor."

Farmers who want to plant the Xtend beans, he said, have other choices. "It just takes more work," he said.

A Section on 08/25/2017