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Plane used to spot dicamba scofflaws in eastern Arkansas

by Stephen Steed | June 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The state Plant Board has taken to the air -- with a single-engine Cessna above the fertile fields of eastern Arkansas -- to help enforce a ban on the use of dicamba and monitor other herbicide usage.

The first flight, of about four hours, was taken Monday morning, Adriane Barnes, a spokesman for the Arkansas Agriculture Department, said.

It couldn't have come at a better time, farmers with damaged soybeans said.

"It's just like a year ago," Tim Sullivan, a farmer in Burdette in Mississippi County, said Monday. "I have 300 acres of cupped, shriveled soybeans."

Sullivan said beans damaged last year largely recovered because of "near-perfect weather conditions through the summer and into harvest."

"But it's a different year, different growing conditions," he said. "The point this year is, you're not supposed to be spraying."

John R. McClendon on Monday morning found dicamba damage on fields south of Marianna.

"I have 4,200 acres, and we'll have to go field by field to get an estimate on acres damaged," McClendon said. "People are spraying it like it's OK. I wouldn't do somebody that way, and I just don't understand why others do that now."

It's not just farmers seeing damage.

"I'm 73 years old, and the older I get the grumpier I get when things of mine get destroyed," said Dr. Reggie Collum, who practices in Lepanto and has 28 acres of pecan, dogwood and old-growth oak trees at his home in Driver, a community near the Mississippi River between Osceola and Wilson. All have been damaged the past three years by chemical drift of herbicides, including dicamba, he said.

The Plant Board implemented this year's April 16-Oct. 31 ban after receiving nearly 1,000 complaints last season of dicamba damage to soybeans, cotton and other vegetation, including backyard gardens, not tolerant of the chemical.

Sullivan said he welcomed the aerial detection program.

"Anything they can do to step up enforcement is welcome," he said. "This thing has gotten out of control and people are thumbing their noses at the law."

The single-engine Cessna in the operation is normally used by the state Forestry Commission to detect forest fires during fire season, Barnes said. She said Plant Board veterans recalled using an airplane some five to 10 years ago in dealing with other spraying issues.

The board has received 23 official complaints of alleged dicamba damage of soybeans, but telephone calls expressing concerns are running several times that number.

Terry Walker, director of the Plant Board, said the "aerial monitoring" involves a Plant Board inspector joining a pilot to look for ground rigs spraying fields. "Obviously, we cover more ground in the air than we can on foot or by vehicle," Walker said. "It's a way to maximize our resources."

Once a spraying operation is spotted -- not necessarily involving dicamba -- the inspector aboard the aircraft notifies Plant Board inspectors on the ground, Walker said.

Those inspectors then go to the site and determine what is being sprayed and, if necessary, take samples and collect any paperwork, Walker said. Inspectors have already been doing that for several weeks, he said.

"The airplane just helps us be more efficient," Walker said, adding he wasn't aware yet of the results of any ground visits made Monday.

Inspectors in east Arkansas have gone to seven-day workweeks, just as they did last year during the rush of dicamba complaints, Walker said.

The inaugural flight centered on Mississippi County, which had more dicamba complaints than any other county.

Other counties will be surveilled as needed, and the flights will continue as long they're considered efficient, Walker said.

McClendon said he believes the damage to his fields 8 miles south of Marianna came from dicamba sprayed from several miles to the southwest. He said consistent damage from one end of a field to another shows that the herbicide moved with weather and temperature conditions, either through inversion or through volatilization hours after being sprayed, and not from physical drift as it was being applied.

"We've been watching for damage ever since the first bean was put into the field," McClendon said. "I hope that airplane gets down my way."

Collum, the Mississippi County doctor, said his 60 pecan trees have produced about 300 pounds the last couple of years, down from 3,000 to 5,000 pounds in other years. Every dogwood tree he planted over the years also has died, and the canopies of old-growth oak trees have been damaged, he said.

"I hate to see 200-year-old trees getting killed," he said. "People's gardens are dying. You can't have a garden up here in my part of the state. But my biggest worry is, all these chemicals we're spraying will have a cumulative effect. What are we doing to ourselves? What price are we paying? I can't answer that. Maybe nobody can."

In 2016, when there was no dicamba legal for in-crop use on dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton anywhere in the nation, the state received about three dozen complaints of damage to crops. Twenty-three were later confirmed to have dicamba damage.

Other soybean-producing states reported similar damage the last two years.

While Arkansas has the only outright ban on dicamba, a stop-use order for 10 counties in the Missouri boot heel took effect Sunday while a July 15 cutoff remains for the rest of the state. Minnesota has a June 20 cutoff date.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which issues registrations for chemicals such as dicamba, has no cutoff date, but the label for the newest formulations of dicamba says the herbicide can't be used on soybeans once they reach reproduction stages. Most Arkansas soybeans are at that stage, meaning any application of dicamba would be a violation of the federal label.

Arkansas law also provides for up to $25,000 in fines for "egregious" violations of pesticide law.

Business on 06/12/2018

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