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State Plant Board ready, again, to debate dicamba

by Stephen Steed | December 6, 2018 at 3:09 a.m.

The state Plant Board expects a full house today when it again considers how, or whether, dicamba can be sprayed on soybeans and cotton next year.

The board will consider two proposals: allowing the herbicide's use, with some restrictions, through June 15, or banning its sale and use.

The board set an April 16 cutoff date for dicamba's use this growing season after receiving about 1,000 complaints in 2017 of damage to crops and other vegetation not tolerant of the herbicide. Even with the April 16 cutoff date, the Plant Board received about 200 complaints of dicamba damage, leading officials to believe a number of farmers violated the ban.

Over the past few days, Audubon Arkansas and a group called Freedom to Farm Foundation Inc. have solicited their members and supporters to either attend the meeting or contact Plant Board members to oppose the herbicide's use next summer.

"Audubon Arkansas is against the use of dicamba past April 15," Dan Schieman, the group's bird conservation director, wrote in an email.

"As the weather warms, this herbicide's volatility increases, meaning even days later it can drift onto nearby native plants, which in turn can harm birds and pollinators. Harmful effects on honeybees have already been documented in Arkansas!"

The Freedom to Farm group took out full-page color ads in Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in newspapers in Jonesboro, Blytheville, Osceola and West Memphis stating similar opposition to a proposal that would allow dicamba's use though June 15 on varieties of cotton and soybeans tolerant of the herbicide.

Robert McLarty, a Little Rock consultant for Freedom to Farm, said the 1-year-old organization is based on Facebook, with about 900 "members" who are organic farmers, owners of farm-to-table restaurants and organizers of farmers' markets.

"We take funds from wherever we can take funds, whether it's $10 or $500," McLarty said.

Also expected at the meeting is a heavy contingent of farmers who plant dicamba-tolerant crops and say the chemical is key to their fight against weeds now resistant to other herbicides.

The June 15 cutoff date was part of a group of farmers' "petition for rulemaking" filed Oct. 15.

The full board voted 11-4 on Nov. 5 to send the petition to its pesticide committee for consideration and, if needed, any revisions. The pesticide committee on Nov. 26 voted 4-0 in favor of the June 15 date but also set stricter buffers than those sought by farmers.

Neither the board nor its pesticide committee has addressed the other petition, a proposal to ban the herbicide's use.

The Plant Board is required by law to address such formal petitions. Either proposal, if approved by the board, also would be subject to a 30-day comment period and then sent to a public hearing. Legislative approval, along with the governor's approval, also would be required for new pesticide regulations.

Shawn Peebles, a Woodruff County farmer who grows 1,500 acres of certified organic soybeans, corn, sweet potatoes and green beans, filed the petition seeking a ban on the herbicide. Some 75 farmers and others signed on.

Off-target movement of dicamba last year got within 30 feet of Peebles' organic operations. Had even a small part of his crops gotten a dose of the herbicide, his entire operation would have been jeopardized, Peebles said.

Otis Howe, the Plant Board chairman, said Wednesday that he expects a big crowd for the 1:30 p.m. meeting at the board's headquarters in Little Rock. He and other members have received "lots of emails" the past couple of days, Howe said.

In retrospect, Howe said, the board should have rescheduled the meeting for a morning start time.

The board's bylaws require nine votes -- a majority of its 16 voting members -- to either approve or reject a petition. Howe said Wednesday that he wasn't aware of any members who won't be participating in today's meeting.

A long agenda -- with the two dicamba proposals, a presentation by a weed scientist on his dicamba field trials this summer, committee reports, consideration of bylaws for the board and other business -- could extend the meeting into the evening, Howe said. The board could also recess and take up remaining issues later, possibly next week, he said.

The agenda was revised this week to allow a presentation by Jason Norsworthy, a weed scientist with the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture. Norsworthy is among several weed scientists across the South and Midwest who say dicamba's volatility -- or tendency to lift itself off plants as a vapor or gas hours or days after application and move to susceptible crops -- can't be fixed by buffer zones, spray nozzles or more training for applicators.

Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, genetically modified soybeans and cotton to be tolerant of dicamba and developed new dicamba formulations that are supposed to be less volatile. BASF and DowDupont also manufacture or sell the new dicamba formulations. The three companies have attributed most of the problems to errors by applicators.

Despite the crop damage in Arkansas and other soybean-producing states the last three growing seasons, the federal Environmental Protection Agency on Oct. 31 said it would allow dicamba's in-crop use through the 2020 growing season. Herbicide manufacturers typically get "labels" for their products that last 10 or 15 years. States can tighten, but not loosen, the EPA regulations.

Emails obtained by the Democrat-Gazette last month through the state's Freedom of Information Act showed that EPA weed scientists recommended in-field buffers as much as 443 feet, to help protect endangered species of plants and animals. Ultimately, the agency set the new buffers at 57 feet where endangered species may exist and carried over 110-foot downwind buffers from this year's regulations.

Metro on 12/06/2018

Print Headline: State Plant Board ready, again, to debate dicamba


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